Sunday, July 6, 2014

134. Our Crumbling Infrastructure, or Where Can I Vacation?

     When I go out on errands in my West Village neighborhood, the sidewalks are fine, but the street crossings are a patchwork of potholes and patches over patches, lumps and bumps from one curb to another.  And often Con Ed is busy repairing who knows what underground, with huge construction vehicles advancing and backing up, and barricades forcing pedestrians to make detours, some of them out in the street inches away from traffic surging past.  If I ride a bus, it’s bumpity bumpity bump bump bumpity bump bumpity.  And if I venture into a subway car, I hang on to a pole for dear life, since the train will start with a lurch and stop with another lurch, sending any unprepared passenger onto the floor or into the lap of a stranger.  But these daily inconveniences are trivia, compared to what I will now chronicle.

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A pothole on Second Avenue, big and deep enough to
hold a traffic pylon and several bags of garbage.

David Shankbone

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Damage after a water main break at 106th Street
in 2011.  Workers pumped out 10 feet of flood
water on subway tracks below.

Metropolitan Transportation Agency of the
State of New York
     At 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday, January 15, 2014, a water main at East 13th Street and Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village broke.  Water surged onto Fifth Avenue and made the pavement buckle, turned nearby streets into rivers, and gushed through sewer gates to flood subway tracks below, disrupting service in three boroughs for most of the morning rush hour.  It took hours to shut off the right pipes, find the one that had burst, and stop the flooding.  Fifth Avenue was closed between 12th and 14th Streets, and bus service in the area was rerouted.  Nearby parking garages were also flooded, and five buildings nearby were without water.  By 6 a.m. the water had receded below street level, leaving a layer of sludge that would require several days to clean up.  The main that broke dated from 1877.

     On the afternoon of Monday, January 27, 2014, a weather-related transformer fire blew a manhole cover in Park Slope, Brooklyn, sending flames into the air, causing another fire down the block; then, an hour later, a water main burst.  Buildings along 21st Street between 5th and 6th Avenues lost power and many residents were without water, power, or heat through a bitterly cold winter night.  Then, shortly after midnight, a 140-year-old water main ruptured at the intersection of Greenwich and Clarkson Streets in the West Village, causing several street closings, and another main burst open in Corona, Queens.  The city’s aging water mains were giving way under the subfreezing temperatures of an unusually harsh winter.

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Street damage after the water main break at 106th Street in 2011.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of new York

     Would the coming of spring bring relief?  Shortly before 11 a.m. on Thursday, May 22, 2014, a water main broke on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, flooding East Houston Street and suddenly creating a huge sinkhole in front of Katz’s Delicatessen that blocked traffic in both directions.  Water broke through the wall of the famous delicatessen to flood its basement, causing an estimated loss of $100,000 in ruined food, supplies, and equipment.  Water was shut off to five commercial and eight residential buildings in the area while repairs were being made.  The main that broke dated from only 1959. 

     The explanation of most of this mayhem?  Over 1,000 miles of New York City’s water mains are more than 100 years old, causing 370 breaks in 2012 and 403 in 2013.  Some are so old that, should there be a break in Lower Manhattan, engineers wouldn’t even be able to locate it.

     But water main breaks only cause flooding; casualties are rare.  But at 9:31 a.m. on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, a gas leak caused an explosion in the East Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, leveling two five-story buildings on Park Avenue just north of 116th Street, killing 8 people and injuring at least 70 others.  Entire buildings nearby shook as if an earthquake had struck, and their windows were blown out.  More than 250 firefighters rushed to the scene.  Bricks and wood from the explosion landed on the adjacent Metro-North Railroad tracks, suspending service to and from Manhattan on this essential line for most of the day, while crews worked to clean up the debris.  The following morning rescuers using spotlights and  cadaver dogs were still searching the smoldering ruins for victims.  The gas main responsible dated from 1887.

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The East Harlem gas main explosion of March 12, 2014.
Adnan Islam 
     Of course there have been other such explosions, but why repeat?  Underneath New York City, unseen and rarely noticed until an emergency arises, lie 6,302 miles of pipes transporting natural gas, more than half of them installed before 1940 and therefore over 70 years old and made of leak-prone materials.  In 2012 alone 9,906 leaks were reported, more than half of them considered hazardous, meaning they posed a danger to people or property.  But not all leaks make the headlines and the evening news on television.  In 2013 a Bronx wife woke up in the middle of the night to detect a pungent odor of gas.  Her husband investigated, smelled nothing unusual, lit a cigarette; suddenly there was a flash of fire that burned his face.  Some such incidents may not even get reported.

     To the above can be added these depressing facts: 30.4% of the city’s roads are in only “fair” or “poor” condition, up from 15.7% in 2000.  Every day 2.7 million cars drive over bridges rated structurally deficient.  And since 37% of the city’s subway signals have exceeded their useful life, trains move less rapidly, and maintenance workers have to improvise replacement parts that manufacturers no longer make.  Also, the average age of the gas mains is 56 years; the bridges, 63 years; the water mains, 69 years; the sewer mains, 84 years; and the subway machine shops and repair yards, 90 years.  (Source: “Caution Ahead,” a March 2014 report by the Center for an Urban Future.)  To put it bluntly, the city's infrastructure -- the stuff we rely on in our daily lives -- is decrepit.

      Depressing, isn't it?  Not the kind of tidings likely to bring visitors flocking to the City That Never Sleeps.  As for us who live here, well, one can always get out of town.  How about a vacation?  Maybe San Francisco, since I lived there once when it boasted Beatniks and cheap rents; it would be fun to see the old town again, ride the cable cars, and register the changes.

     In September 2010 a gas explosion in San Bruno, a suburb of San Francisco, sent a plume of flame a thousand feet into the air, killed eight, injured nearly 60 others, created a massive crater, and ignited fires that gutted dozens of homes.  Of course I wouldn’t be in San Bruno, but the thought of a plume of flame a thousand feet high puts me just a bit off.  So maybe the City of the Angels, to see if ladies in black are still putting red roses on Valentino’s grave.

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Devastation in San Bruno after the 2010 gas explosion.
Brocken Inaglory
     In January 2010 a steel water main dating from 1914 broke in Los Angeles, flooding dozens of homes and businesses and sweeping cars down Ventura Boulevard.  Maybe I wouldn’t be anywhere near Ventura Boulevard, but why take a chance?  Then how about the Pacific Northwest?  I passed through it once, marveled at the forests and mountains.  And they say Seattle is a beautiful town well worth visiting, and a perfect base for expeditions hither and yon.

     On May 23, 2013, a section of a bridge over the Skagit River 60 miles north of Seattle collapsed when hit by an oversize truck.  Fortunately, there were no deaths and only three injuries, but the year before the Federal Highway Administration had declared the bridge “functionally obsolete.”  So maybe I’ll skip Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.  Well, why not Detroit, to see that financially stressed city’s fabulous art collection before they sell it all off, as may well happen?

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The collapsed Skagit River bridge.

     In May 2014 heavy rain caused a water main to burst under Detroit’s IndyCar racetrack, which then buckled.  I didn’t have indycar racing in mind, but even so…  Okay, Philadelphia.  They have a splendid Fine Arts Museum and lots of Rodin as well, and of course dear old Independence Hall.

     In June 2014 a water main in North Philadelphia sent a surge of water down Master Street and created a gaping hole that closed the street to traffic.  And another break in South Philadelphia flooded several streets and made residents move their parked cars to avoid damage from the rushing waters.  So good-bye Philly, hello Houston.  Because there must be something there I ought to see.

     In August 2011 the city of Houston, in the grip of a record-breaking heat wave, experienced 700 water main breaks a day, as old pipes were pressured by increased water use.  Are you kidding – 700 a day?  Well then,  Massachusetts, a state I’ve often vacationed in, charming, quiet, quaint, if you get away from the hurly-burly of Boston, though I love that city, too.

     In Taunton, Massachusetts, in 2005 only quick action by engineers avoided a major disaster when heavy rains threatened to break the 173-year-old wooden Whittenton Pond Dam.  And in the spring of 2010 a crisis likewise precipitated by heavy rains at the Forge Pond Dam in Freetown led to the evacuation of downstream residents so an emergency breaching could be performed; the dam was over 200 years old.  The state, I now learn, has no less than 2900 dams, many between 100 and 200 years old.  So I won't be vacationing downstream from any of them, and since they seem to be everywhere, I won’t be vacationing in Massachusetts at all.  In fact, it looks like I won’t be vacationing anywhere in the U.S., at least not safely, since there’s no escaping our crumbling infrastructure.

     But is it really that bad?  Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers releases a Report Card assigning letter grades to each type of infrastructure in the nation.  So what does the Report Card for 2013 say?  Aviation, D; bridges, C+; dams, D; drinking water, D; energy, D+; levees, D-; ports, C; rail, C+; roads, D; transit, D.  The highest grade they give us is C (mediocre); no F’s (failing), but not one B (good), much less an A (excellent).  So we aren’t quite flunking, but we’re close to it.

     It wasn’t always this way.  For perspective, allow me a brief digression.  Let’s zoom back to the year 1951 when, just out of college and back home in Evanston, Illinois, I was studying classical Greek at Northwestern while hoping for a Fulbright Scholarship to France.  Back then I worked afternoons in a local insurance company’s filing department, retrieving files needed by the agents upstairs: a brainless job that passed the time and brought in a little bit of money.  My boss, Mr. Minick, had just retired and taken a job there while waiting for the completion of his new home in a residential community in Florida, so he, like me, was marking time.  Mr. Minick was small, neat, soft-voiced, and likable, his world limited to the tranquil Midwest, with anticipation of retirement to a warm, sunny clime.  A quintessential white-collar Republican, he deplored the fact of Harry Truman in the White House and thought Senator Robert Taft “a good safe man for the country” (unaware of the coming “I like Ike” groundswell that would carry Eisenhower into that same White House).  The soul of order, every Friday afternoon, just before five, he would announce, “We’re in good shape,” meaning that all the requested files had been delivered, none were missing.  And when the subject of my learning Greek or getting a scholarship to France came up, he would state with passionate conviction, “The best that ever was is right here!”

     There was smugness in that statement, but this was soon after World War II, from which we, unlike the other participants, emerged fat and prosperous and powerful, the very image of Success.  Certainly we were the envy of the world, and if Republicans and Democrats squabbled over the usual differences of opinion, they agreed wholeheartedly with Mr. Minick that we were the best ever, that nothing like us ever was, an attitude that I have since labeled Minickism.

     Now let’s fast-forward again to the twenty-first century.  In contrast with New York’s bumpity-bump bus rides and screeching, jolting subways, certain cities of Europe, I’m told, have trains and buses that glide smoothly along without a single jolt.  And for longer trips?  In China glistening white bullet trains with large windows, looking like long white snakes, speed along at 200 to 300 kilometers an hour, shrinking from 15 to a mere 5 hours the 746-mile trip from Beijing to Shanghai.  They are free from the hazards of weather, traffic jams, and bad roads, and have comfortable seating as well.  In Japan shark-nosed bullet trains race along a network of lines, providing safe, fast, punctual service.  And in France a train à grande vitesse (TGV) or high-speed train from Paris can reach Lyons in 2 hours 10 minutes, about a third of the time the old trains took years ago when I made the exact same trip.

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A bullet train in Japan. 
     And in this country?  Plans for high-speed trains go back to the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965.  And today, 49 years later?  There will be high-speed service in California, the Midwest, New England, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, New Mexico, and the Southwest … someday.  Promises, promises.  In this region Amtrak hopes to have 94-minute high-speed service between New York and Washington … by 2030.  That’s right, 2030.  Because the initiative requires a whole new system of track and stations.  So by 2030 we can hope for high-speed trains on our busy Northeast Corridor route, the equivalent of what trains in China, Japan, and France have already achieved long since.  In the meantime, while their trains race smoothly to their destinations, ours just creak along, often interrupted by fallen trees, signal failures, police activity,  collision with a vehicle, downed power wires, a derailed freight train, anticipation of a winter storm, or a pedestrian fatality, to cite the interruptions of Amtrak service here over the last few months.

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Power lines down at Valhalla, halting Metro-North service on the Harlem Line in 2011.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York

     Now I don’t mean to be an alarmist.  This country has many fine things going for it -- video games, high-speed Internet, NASCAR auto races, Coke and Pepsi, stunning baton-twirling drum majorettes, Walmart and Google, vampires and werewolves, and pornography at your fingertips – so we have much to be proud of.  But not, alas, our infrastructure.  We fight futile foreign wars, and it crumbles.  Congress (approval rating 7%) launches an investigation (the fifth, I believe) of the Benghazi attack, and it crumbles.  Or the House votes, once again, to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and it crumbles. 

     But I repeat: I don’t mean to be an alarmist.  This blog is meant to inform and entertain, not to provoke or debate or agitate.  Our infrastructure overall is rated D+, just short of C-, so there’s hope.  And what happens in San Bruno, California, or 60 miles north of Seattle, or along Ventura Boulevard in the City of the Angels is pretty remote from New York.  I don’t really need a vacation; I’m much too busy here.  Yes, we have water main breaks and gas main explosions in New York, but usually off in some other borough, or at the other end of ours, and not in our immediate vicinity.  Let’s look at the bright side of things.  How about a luscious cupcake at the Magnolia Bakery just downstairs?  Gooey gobblers sitting on my doorstep assure me that they are scrumptiously delicious.  On this happy note I’ll sign off.  And next time I’ll try to be perky and upbeat.  How about a post on the environment?

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Finger-lickin' good, and right downstairs from me.
Andy C

     A note on the Fourth:  So what did you do on the Fourth, fellow Americans?  (Ukrainians and other foreign visitors are not required to answer.)  As for me, I did nothing special.  How many of us took time off from backyard barbecues or acquiring a deeper tan at the beach to read the Declaration of Independence?  Not many, I suspect.  But here's what Tammany politician George Washington Plunkitt had to say about Tammany on the Fourth in the early 1900s, when reformers would run off to Newport or the Adirondacks.

     "The very constitution of the Tammany Society requires that we must assemble at the wigwam on the Fourth, regardless of the weather, and listen to the readin' of the Declaration of Independence and patriotic speeches....  The great hall upstairs is filled with five thousand people, suffocatin' from heat and smoke.  Every man Jack of these five thousand knows that down in the basement there's a hundred cases of champagne and two hundred kegs of beer ready to flow when the signal is given.  Yet that crowd stick to their seats without turnin' a hair while, for four solid hours, the Declaration of Independence is read, long-winded orators speak, and the glee club sings itself hoarse....  Sometimes human nature gets the better of a man and he begins to nod, but he always wakes up with a hurrah for the Declaration of Independence."

     Of course it didn't hurt that many of the Tammany crowd were Irish Americans and therefore eager to celebrate America's breaking away from Great Britain, which Ireland at that time had yet to do.  But it can't be denied that Tammany, for all its faults, was red, white, and blue to the core.  And us?  Hmm...  The Times printed the complete Declaration on the Fourth; I have taken a vow to read it, and soon.

This is New York

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Stinkie Pinkie

     Coming soon:  Carmine DeSapio, the Last Tammany Boss.  In the offing: Cardinal Spellman, arch patriot, supporter of Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover (who had a file on him), friend of Presidents, etc.  And the crucial question: Was he or wasn’t he?

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder


  1. In 1987, Congress ordered 132 B-2 bombers from Boing. Each cost almost 2 ½ billion dollars, so they eventually cut the number down to 21. A costly crash reduced the number to 20—I wonder if that loss made any difference in terms of the nation's safety. There being an enormous number of over-priced aircraft collecting dust on the ground, I wonder if a modest hangar sale might not save a lot of lives and put thousands of citizens to work. Nah, it makes too much sense.

    While waiting for my immigration visa, I worked at U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service in Iceland. When the styli on our high=priced Presto turntables began to sound worn, I called Base Supply and requested replacement cartridges. The next day, they delivered two brand new turntables, claiming that it was "easier" for them. Such waste was common and somewhat of a shock to my inherent European frugality.

  2. Isn't that somehow normal for every bigger city around the world? They just can't keep up with so many streets, it's normal to have problems. Maybe you just haven't seen the infrastructure in Eastern Europe or Asia.

    Greetings from Hotel deals in New York

    1. What you say may well be true for the streets. But years ago there weren't as many water and gas main breaks in New York, and the bridges were in better shape. The deterioration has now reached the crisis stage.