Friday, March 29, 2013


Hoover Dam

Rachel Maddow Thinking Big

   The Minnesota I-35 Bridge was an eight-lane, steel truss arch bridge that carried Interstate 35W across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 140,000 vehicles crossed the bridge daily. I use the verb was because the bridge, opened in 1967, collapsed at 6:05 p.m. CDT on Wednesday, August 1, 2007. It was during rush hour. The structure and deck collapsed into the Mississippi River and on to the riverbanks below, the south part toppling 81 feet eastward in the process. Approximately 100 vehicles were involved, sending their occupants and 18 construction workers up to 115 feet down to the river or onto its banks. Northern sections fell into a rail yard, landing on three unoccupied and stationary freight train cars. 13 people were killed and 145 injured.
   A possible design flaw in the bridge was discovered, related to large steel sheets called gusset plates which were used to connect girders together in the truss structure. The National Transportation Safety Board announced they had determined that the bridge's design specified steel gusset plates that were undersized and inadequate to support the intended load of the bridge, a load which had increased over time.
   On September 19, 2007 the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced that a replacement bridge would be built due the highway's function as a vital link for carrying commuters and truck freight.
   One year later, on September 18, 2008, at 5 A.M., The I-35W Saint Anthony Falls Bridge was opened to the public.
   But five years after the collapse, Andrew Hermann, the president of the American Society of Engineers, told ABC News that while the nation has an aggressive bridge inspection program, the government is still not spending enough money on updating and maintaining the nation's infrastructure.
   "Congress basically lacks the courage to do what is needed to raise the funds," he said. "Bridges require maintenance, and maintenance and rehabilitation require funding... Politicians like to show up and cut a ribbon on a brand new bridge, but they don't like to show up and applaud a new paint job that may increase the life of a bridge."
   As I've previously mentioned
   I like to stroll over the 6th Street Bridge, or technically Viaduct (meaning it is made of several components) almost every morning at around 5:30. It's certainly good exercise, and I tend to lose myself in self reflection while doing so. I mentally edit the posts of this blog while walking over the bridge, getting some pretty good new ideas, or ideas about rearranging the ideas I've already written so that they may work, or flow more smoothly.
   The only days I don't walk over the bridge is when it rains, or when it is closed, either due to some kind of bridge maintenance going on, or movie filming. Or when I'm too lazy.
   It takes approximately 22.5 minutes to leave the Las Americas, reach the beginning of the bridge at 6th and Mateo, and reach the eastern side at Whittier Bl. and S Boyle Ave. in Boyle Heights, and another approximately 22.5 minutes to get back. So it's a significant walk, and on the way back, heading west over the bridge, I'm treated to the view of the Los Angeles skyline as can be seen in the 4th picture above.
   The third picture above features our world famous Los Angeles River, which was once free flowing and was once a main water source for the city. However unpredictable and devastating floods continued to plague it well into the 1930s (the most notable one being the catastrophic 1938 flood that killed at least 115 people and precipitated the recall of then-mayor of Los Angeles Frank L. Shaw), leading to calls for flood control measures. The Army Corps of Engineers began an ambitious project of completely encasing the river bed and banks in concrete, with only a trickle of water usually flowing down its middle. Environmental groups and park advocates support the removal of the concrete and the restoration of natural vegetation and wildlife.
   My good friend Terry and I at times rode our bikes along the banks of concrete on the river when we were kids, exploring the huge storm drains that feed it. We would return home covered with mud head to toe.
   Giant 20 foot long ants live in the those storm drains:
   The 6th Street Bridge however supports no ants, and was built in 1932 (the largest concrete bridge in the state for the first 13 years after it was built). It is 3,446 feet long.
   "During the construction of the viaduct, an on-site plant was used to supply the concrete for construction. However, the quality of the concrete turned out to have a high alkali content and lead to an alkali-silica reaction which creates cracks in the concrete and saps the strength of the structure.
   Current estimates are that the viaduct has a 70% probability of collapse due to a major earthquake within 50 years." -
   Indeed, every morning that I walk over the bridge I step across, or notice cracks in the concrete where I can actually see the Los Angeles River way down below me. There's one section of the north side railing somewhere near the middle of the expanse which is gone, with a wooden board bandaging the open space.
   And knowing Southern California's penchant for major earthquakes occuring during the early morning hours... well I was taking a big chance each day.
   The country as a whole has an infrastructure problem, the problem being we're not maintaining it. For the second time in a row, America’s infrastructure received a near-failing grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). They provide a report card, so to speak, grading the status of our nation's ability to maintain itself. The overall grade for the entire country now... D+. The good news, we're up from a D in 2009 (the study is updated every 4 years).
   Here's their report:
   Here's some highlights (complied by the lovely Beth Buczynski for Care 2):
   The average age of the 84,000 dams in the country is 52 years old. The nation’s dams are aging and the number of high-hazard dams is on the rise. The number of deficient dams is estimated at more than 4,000, which includes 2,000 deficient high-hazard dams.
   Much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. Assuming every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA).

   Forty-two percent of America’s major urban highways remain congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually.

   Over two hundred million trips are taken daily across deficient bridges in the nation’s 102 largest metropolitan regions. In total, one in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient, while the average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges is currently 42 years.

   The study evaluates 16 sectors that include things like solid waste, the power grid, drinking water, wastewater, and roads and bridges, then grades are given to each category according to certain criteria, such as; capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience and innovation. Since 1998, the grades have consistently been near failing, averaging only Ds, due to delayed maintenance and under investment across most categories. The grades in 2013 ranged from a high of B- for solid waste to a low of D- for inland waterways and levees. Solid waste, drinking water, wastewater, roads, and bridges all saw incremental improvements, and rail jumped from a C- to a C+.
   ASCE President Gregory E. DiLoreto, P.E. calls the results "simply unacceptable."
   "Infrastructure can either be the engine for long-term economic growth and employment, or, it can jeopardize our nation’s standing if poor roads, deficient bridges, and failing waterways continue to hurt our economy," he said.
   Ms Buczynski points out that if the United States doesn’t find a way to  inject over $3 trillion into its own infrastructure in the next 7 years, the next report may read all F’s. And there is no extra credit in this class.
   This issue is fairly easy to understand. If you buy a new car and use it normally over the years, but neglect to change the oil, or put coolant in the radiator, and check the tires, preferring to spend your available cash in a state of the art stereo system and tinted windows, sooner or later you're going to break down, with repairs costing typically way more than preventive maintenance would have, and in the case of a tire blowing while traveling at high speeds, you may lose your very life.
   The same goes for our nation's infrastructure, it's bridges, railways, roads and highways, aqueducts, and energy grid, etc. If we don't spend the time and effort to maintain these vital entities that each and everyone of us use on a daily basis then they are doomed to fail.
   But the Republicans in Congress, especially the House of Representatives, are insisting on austerity measures while pursuing nonexistent spending and debt priorities. They are not willing to invest in the country and would rather see it fail while blaming the consequences of their inaction and mistaken prerogatives on President Obama. They don't care how many people die as a direct result of their ideology and hatred. They wish to keep pumping money into a bloated and inefficient  Defense Department, and continue corporate welfare, giving away billions of your taxpayer dollars to the very same oil companies that are gouging you at the gas pump.
   And sadly, all too often, the Democrats allow them to do it.
   In 1933, during the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt as part of the New Deal,  created the Public Works Administration (PWA), a large-scale public works construction agency. It built large-scale public works such as dams, bridges, hospitals, and schools. Its goals were to spend $3.3 billion ($57.75 billion 2012 dollars) in the first year, and $6 billion ($105 billion 2012 dollars) in all, to provide employment, stabilize purchasing power, and help revive the economy.
   Let me repeat that. To provide employment, stabilize purchasing power, and help revive the economy. I believe the nation could use some of that today.
  In 1935 the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created. It was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency, employing millions of unemployed people (mostly unskilled men) to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads. It employed 3.3 million workers in 1938 (peak), and provided almost 8 million jobs between 1935 and 1943. Almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge or school constructed by the WPA. It's initial appropriation in 1935 was for $4.9 billion (about 6.7 percent of the 1935 GDP, and about $80.9 billion 2012 dollars), and in total it spent $13.4 billion ($209 billion 2012 dollars). It tried to provide one paid job for all families in which the breadwinner suffered long-term unemployment.
   "The direct focus of the WPA projects changed with need. In 1935 priority projects were to improve infrastructure; roads, extension of electricity to rural areas, water conservation, sanitation and flood control. In 1936, as outlined in that year’s Emergency Relief Appropriations Act, public facilities became a focus; parks and associated facilities, public buildings, utilities, airports, and transportation projects were funded. The following year, saw the introduction of agricultural improvements, such as the production of marl fertilizer and the eradication of fungus pests. As the Second World War approached, and then eventually began, WPA projects became increasingly defense related." -Wikipedia
   Hoover Dam cost $165 million (other sources say $175... about $2.79 billion to $2.96 billion 2012 dollars) to build and was completed in four and a half years, between 1931 and 1936. First power was produced in October 1936, more than two years ahead of schedule. A total of 4.4 million yards of concrete were used in its construction. The powerhouse used 17 generators in 10 acres of floor space to produce over 4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity for California, Nevada, and Arizona. Who paid for the dam? The federal government. The federal government paid for it during the worst economic crisis this country has ever faced.
   And it has paid for itself. Residential and industrial users of electricity have been paying back the government $5.4 million a year at 3% interest over the last 50 years as part of their monthly utility bills.
   "Through the sale of power and water, a major portion of the money used to construct Reclamation projects is returned to the Federal Treasury. Hoover Dam's approximate $175 million cost was repaid over a 50-year period, with interest. Hoover Dam and power plant revenues from the sale of water and power have repaid approximately $260 million, including interest, to the Federal Treasury, principally from 50-year power contracts that ended May 31, 1987. Several contingencies, including $25 million allocated to flood control, will be repaid with interest over the 30-year contract period which began June 1, 1987."
   Economists Paul Krugman, Robert Riech, Victoria Grant, and myself (a non-economist) all believe the nation needs to spend more money to stimulate the economy and increase employment. A lot of Democrats and even the president himself believes this as well, or has indicated he does. Yet the Republicans stated mission and goals are just the opposite, to restrict spending without increases in revenue (taxes, and closure of tax loopholes and subsidies), which have a predictable outcome. The country's economy continues to be depressed and unemployment remains high. The Republicans in Congress are just fine with this. Why shouldn't they be? They already have jobs.
   As for the 6th Street Bridge, the city’s Bureau of Engineering considered building a replica or a simple viaduct before switching gears and announcing a major design competition. The 5th picture above depicts the design that won that competition.
   Paid for mostly by federal highway money, with a smattering of state and Measure R funding, construction of the new bridge is hoped to begin in early 2015 and the new bridge is expected to open in 2019.
   Those expectations were formulated before the Republicans allowed the sequestration process to initiate. Let's hope that the federal highway money mentioned above is still available.
   Because I'm looking forward to a nice, safe walk in 2019 on that shiny new bridge.

Using Pension Funds to Build Infrastructure and Put Americans to Work

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