“Wow.” I said to my wife. She looked at me with an eyebrow raised. I nodded at the television which was explaining that an I-5 freeway bridge over the Skagit River had just collapsed. It happened in Mt. Vernon, Washington, halfway between Everett and Bellingham. Okay, this is Washington and so no one knows what I’m talking about. Let’s just say it happened on the only freeway between Seattle and the Canadian Border at Vancouver. It’s not like the bridge collapse in Minneapolis a decade or so ago, but for us, it’s a pretty big deal for us hicks in the Pacific Northwest.
When that bridge in Minneapolis failed it caused quite a stir, and an assessment was made of the highway infrastructure in general. While the freeways have been added to here and there, President Dwight Eisenhower (who instituted the idea of freeways and put serious national funds behind them) was the last president to spend serious money on interstate highways. Since his administration, freeways have been more of a vehicle for pork barrel politics than a real attempt at encouraging interstate commerce. Eisenhower was also thinking of transporting the military in case of an attack on the country, which, strangely enough, is the thinking behind the Internet. It was invented as a means of communication that would stay functional by virtue of a zillion different pathways in case our infrastructure was damaged by attack. Way to go Advanced Research Projects Administration (ARPA) and the National Science Foundation, who copied the idea from Swiss scientists at CERN. (No, neither Apple, nor Microsoft, or Al Gore had anything to do with it.) Anyway, after the bridge in Minneapolis fell down, the highway infrastructure and particularly its bridges were surveyed and assessed and we found out that we hadn’t done squat about maintaining our bridges and it showed. Headlines swirled everywhere about it, the text below the bar explaining that we were going to see a lot more bridges fall down in the next fifteen to twenty years if we didn’t get off our butts and spend some money on our highway bridges.
Rather than deal with the bridges, instead we chose to spend our national dollars on a few wars, bailing out the financial woes of our dishonest financial organizations, bailing them out again and then a couple more wars. Given the low return we got from where we spent our hard earned trillions of dollars, I have to wonder what our bridges and roads would be like had we spent at least some of that gargantuan sum on our infrastructure.
Climbing into the Wayback Machine, I wave to Mr. Peabody and revisit an idea I had, well, way back. I wondered why the US didn’t continue or amplify the old VISTA project. Jack Kennedy started it: Volunteers In Service To America. It was like the Peace Corps except local. It occurred to me that we should have a military branch that wasn’t military. Ergo, those with aversion to violence could still participate in clear conscience. The idea is to have a branch of the service that works on the infrastructure and works in liaison with its research and development. Those who complete a three or four year hitch get the same benefits that veterans with similar service do. I got the idea from author Robert Heinlein’s depiction of future society. There were two classes of people: the population and citizens. Citizens were members of the population who did a hitch in government service, and as such were provided with education, health and employment priorities. While Heinlein was a rabid conservative that makes the most outrageous Tea Party Republican look moderate, some of his ideas were spot on in terms of both viability and public acceptance and participation. The idea of the military-like benefits for non-combatants being one of them. Such a thing would go a long way to improving our current situation with roads and bridges, while also producing jobs and economic growth.
We’re already looking at more efficient and safer transportation. The concept of computer driven cars –vehicle autopilots– is catching on seriously. A number of highways have already been improved and fitted with cabling that works with the developing autopilot systems. Why not go all in and encourage overall improvement, so that we have highways and bridges for autonomous cars to use. A focus on interstate and intrastate travel is wise. Our bridge over the Skagit River is the most recent domino falling. There are more to come, and as they say in science, the failures will increase in logarithm. That means that the more time that passes, the more frequent the failures will get. Fortunately, no one was killed when the I-5 bridge fell into the river, which is a happy end note. Other bridge failures have not been so kind. Our highways have a similar cancer eating at them as those of us with Mutiple Myeloma. Our skeletons are rotting. The difference though, is huge. We can cure the infrastructure if we choose to take the treatment.