The most anticipated tourist attraction in the city where I live, The Golden Gate Bridge, is a testament to the lasting utility of a well executed infrastructure project. The world’s most famous suspension bridge still serves as the critical artery connecting San Francisco to the bedroom communities of Marin County to the north, where much of the city’s workforce resides. Remarkably, this marvel of engineering was completed in the late 1930s – a time when the U.S. was coming out of the Great Depression.
The New Deal brought about an expansion of infrastructure that should inspire us. Yet nearly 70 years after its completion, the sobering reality remains: it’s difficult to imagine a project of that moxie being constructed today.
One indicator of the distance between then and now can be seen in the story of Doyle Drive – the one-and-half mile southern approach to the Bridge. In 1993, USA Today reported that the elevated portion of Doyle Drive is the 5th most dangerous bridge in America. After years of EIR studies and bickering amongst a myriad of stakeholders and governmental agencies, San Francisco voters in 2003 finally passed Proposition K, a sales tax increase ensuring the city’s funding for an upgrade of Doyle Drive.
Sales tax revenue generated from Proposition K is slated to cover only $67.9 million of the $1.045 billion estimated cost of the project. State and Federal funding has also been committed for the project, yet there is still $414 million of cost yet to be accounted for. Along with hopes of securing additional funding from the Fed, The Golden Gate Bridge District is responsible for providing $75 million for the Doyle Drive retrofit. To meet the cost of this and other projects, such as the addition of a suicide-prevention net, the Bridge District is seriously considering soliciting corporate sponsorship of the world-famous span.
The appalling fact that corporate sponsorship is on the table for one of the most iconic pieces of infrastructure in the modern world confirms the failure of the public sector in regards to maintaining an aging infrastructure. For the past few years, politicians at all levels of the government seeking office have beaten the drum of tax reductions in order to secure votes, only to find themselves with budget crises on their hands once elected. With city and state budgets strapped, local politicians often look to the federal government in order to help pay for repairing roads and other basic services, not to mention the huge pensions of public employees.
The other place local governments look for money to balance the budget is from the private sector. In many cities across America, elected officials have responded to these kinds of crises by partnering up with private enterprise to generate jobs and sales tax revenue by developing ‘convention and retail districts’. Oftentimes these developments will also include hotels, luxury condominiums and even sporting or arts venues. Even before the recent economic downturn, many of these developments were representing white elephants, sitting empty while the issues of sustained job creation and infrastructure repair remain unresolved.
Examples of infrastructure from the past, such as the ruins of Roman Aqueducts on the Iberian Peninsula and the dams of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, remind us of the great lengths societies will go through in order to function more efficiently. Although today the concept of infrastructure is primarily associated with industrial economies and modernization in the developing world, the truth is that ever since the earliest agrarian communities humans have been building physical systems that harness the powerful forces of nature and make life more convenient.
Years from now, the built environment of America will provide one of the primary measurements for historians seeking to quantify 20th Century achievements. Today the vast networks of roads, bridges, ports, airports, power plants and water lines built in the U.S. over the past 150 years remains the standard for nations undergoing industrialization. Yet while other countries are busy catching up to the American paradigm, the U.S. system is falling behind. Entropy is setting in, and repeated policy failures prevent retrofitting and repair to take place at a mass scale.
With all the current hubris surrounding the “New New Deal” proposed by the incoming Obama administration, discussion about the fundamental role of infrastructure seems to be missing from the conversation. Primary focus about the infrastructure package remains on rapid job creation rather than long term economic health. New Orleans remains a grim reminder of how infrastructural failure can destroy an economy for good, and misplaced investments in convention centers and other ephemera have limited impact.
There has also been much press about a ‘green revolution’. While looking for cleaner alternatives to powering our society is an important issue, there is almost no acknowledgment that the most sustainable approach lies in fixing and updating what is already in place. Already, speculators are foaming at the mouth at what will end up probably being the next bubble – clean tech.
In the coming days, it will be critical that careful attention be paid to a basic approach to ensure that stimulus money is not squandered on pork. As state and local governments – as well as big business and special interests – vie for handouts from Papa Fed, the United States government must seek ways to allocate funds for maximum investment in future generations.
This is not to say such investments should not be bold and even beautiful. I know it’s possible every time I look at, or cross, the Golden Gate.
Adam Nathaniel Mayer is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area. Raised in the town of Los Gatos, on the edge of Silicon Valley, Adam developed a keen interest in the importance of place within the framework of a highly globalized economy. He currently lives in San Francisco where he works in the architecture profession.