Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Two-tiered Highway System Ahead? Report Calls for Major Expenses on Bridges

No fewer than 25 of the 135 bridges which Quebec’s transport ministry has been examining in the last few months will have to be torn down and replaced, La Presse reports this morning. Over the weekend the ministry “discreetly” released its study and recommendations, the newspaper says.

The thorough look at concrete bridges follows a major investigation of the spectacular collapse of a highway overpass north of Montreal in 2006. Five people were killed and six injured. The commission of inquiry which followed concluded that this type of concrete bridge can develop dangerous cracks during Quebec’s freeze and thaw climatic cycle if not properly reinforced. The province’s 1100 bridges of this type were surveyed, of which 135 were targeted for more complete study because of their age (the overpass had been built in 1970) and their apparent condition.

La Presse says the cost of replacement and repair has not be determined, but adds that most of the work will be done in 2008. It should be remembered, though, that Quebec has earmarked $1.7 billion for roadwork over the next fiscal year, but one of its major projects will be a public-private partnership to construct a new toll bridge linking the island of Montreal to an expressway north of the city.

We are likely to see more and more of bad news about highway infrastructure, followed by frenzied projects to insure highways safety. The great period of highway construction in North America began at the end of World War II and ended in most places in the 1980s. This means that highway infrastructure is aging fast, particularly in places where governments trying to cut taxes and/or deficits cut corners on maintenance instead.

James Howard Kunstler in his gloomy The Long Emergency writes that we are not going to have the resources to do the upkeep on this infrastructure. Naomi Klein in her somewhat more hopeful The Shock Doctrine says that influential elements in society—“disaster capitalists,” she calls them—will seize the opportunity to privatize everything to the advantage of the rich.

I read both books as I researched my next project, The Walkable City, and the best I can say at this point is that we are going to have to be very vigilant in the next little while. If we are not careful, we will end up with crumbling roads for the many (the public network) and well-maintained private expressways for the few, thus giving new meaning to the idea of a multi-level highway.


Peter Samuel said...

This is a false dichotomy. Privately operated highways - Dulles Greenway VA, Chicago Skyway, Indiana Toll Road, NW Parkway CO, South Bay expressway Calif - are as much part of the "public network" as the state owned highways. Their customers are the public after all. They are not for the few if the managers can help it because there is no profit in just serving a few.

Martin Langeland said...

Privatizing public assets increases their cost as it adds the need for a profit.

The idea appeals primarily to those who think raising taxes is political death, and those able to acquire the asset's profits -- i.e.: pols and pirates. The public is stuck with the tremendous inefficiency of a corrupt system as a result.

Throughout the "developed" world we need independently (Government?)funded basic research which will lead to more appropriately capitalist funded applied research. Neither can address the problems of energy, environment and society without a massive infrastructure infusion which, in turn, can only occur after we dare to imagine what a just and creative world might be.
To return to earth: "The Walkable City' sounds an excellent start.

Mary Soderstrom said...

As Oliver Wendell Holmes said: Taxes are what we pay for civilized society. Maintain road infrastructure is the very least one can ask of governments.

A big problem with PPPs is that they cherry-pick the projects most likely to make a profit through tolls. They may indeed be used by the public, but the rest of the highway network becomes the poor relation of the system. Financing its maintenance and renewal becomes even more problematic.


Martin Langeland said...

"Infrastructure", to me, is much more than roads. It includes wifi, and other communications links, but also the educational institutions that train people to make the best of our infrastructure.