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“The earth will move again in California, and the bridge must stay intact.”

Juliette Kayyem penned an interesting opinion piece in the Boston Globe titled, “Bridge to the future: This time, let’s build infrastructure that lasts.”

In the piece, Kayyem stresses the importance of looking beyond the immediate, job-creating impact of infrastructure investment:

Infrastructure projects are too often promoted exclusively for job creation, a legacy of Obama’s early stimulus package. They focus our attention on quantifiable standards of jobs gained or money spent. That’s not necessarily bad, but it can limit how we judge the quality of these investments and how we build those projects.

Paramount, Kayyem suggests, is the quality and sustainability of the investments the nation makes and the safety new constructions can guarantee. While downplaying local projects may strike a nerve with some (“Losing a two-lane bridge down the street from his house would be inconvenient, but of insignificance compared to losing the Golden Gate Bridge”), Kayyem’s piece is compelling nonetheless and we have excerpted it below:

…We too often settle for a patchwork of fixes on what is broken, and don’t think enough about the most desirable way to fix things. The New Orleans levees that are still being rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina will withstand a “100-year’’ storm, for example. That’s not such great news, according to an independent research panel that criticized the design, for those in New Orleans in year 101.

A society like ours will never be immune from all harms; stuff will happen. The goal is to build it in a way that makes us most adaptable to those harms. Focusing design efforts to protect the environment, or to promote biking or walking, are all important aspects of any infrastructure investment. But they matter little if the structure can’t survive its unique surroundings.

Again, a bridge is illustrative. And not just any bridge but the design for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which partially collapsed after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The new design is built around one obvious premise: The earth will move again in California, and the bridge must stay intact.

The bridge, expected to open in 2013, will sway with the earth. It is being built with enough flexibility so that it literally “rides the earthquake,’’ remarked its lead designer. This isn’t simply to protect the bridge, or the people who may be on it during the disaster. The bridge may very well be one of the only lifelines to deliver emergency care and supplies to devastated regions. And it will last a very long time.

The president’s new half-trillion-dollar proposal for highway, bridge, and mass transit projects should be just the beginning of federal and state efforts to promote resilient designs. As the details of how the money will be spent are devised, traditional means through tax breaks or regulations should be coupled with more creative inducements – such as engineering competitions or research and development grants – to promote projects that not only employ workers, but build for a very long future that will bring new hurricanes, earthquakes, and bedlam.

Then, we may not need another massive infrastructure investment in the future. Then, maybe, we can all confidently move to New Orleans in year 101.


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