Building Bridges

Political dialogue of the binary type, common in these late days of empire, usually centers on a small set of topics: taxes, government size—big for liberals, small for conservatives—military spending, entitlements (like social security), and a few others (maybe). Like a feedback loop, once begun, it continues without variety.

Also, the race to become the new occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2016 has begun. Establishment candidates—Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, maybe Chris Christie—will be opposed by more marginal candidates on both the right and the left. They’ll debate the issues, or at least create the aura that a debate is actually taking place. Then, the party bosses will demand that everyone line up behind whoever they deem most electable, and the sham we participate in every four years will again occur a year from November.

Do you really believe that 73-year-old socialist, Bernie Sanders, has a snowball’s chance to get the Democratic nomination? And if you say that his role is to push Hillary to the left on issues, then I fear you might be giving our current political process far too much credit as means for necessary change.

But this post isn’t really about presidential politics. It’s about infrastructure—and at least in this post—building bridges.

Growing up in a mill town bordering the Androscoggin River, I was drawn to the flow of water beginning in the mountains of New Hampshire to the west, and ending at the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Many evenings in high school were spent with friends near the bridge that crosses the river from Durham to Lisbon Falls.

That bridge, like many up and down the Androscoggin, was built in 1936. Why do so many of Maine’s bridges have date plates indicating that specific year? Because that was the year when Maine and New England experienced one of the rainiest stretches in its history.

Rain commenced on March 14, 1936, and continued for two weeks straight. This resulted in massive flooding that covered half of the Eastern United States. The Great Flood of 1936 also took out many of the existing bridges over Maine’s rivers, most of them built in the early 1900s, replacing older, wooden-style bridges.

The Lisbon-Durham bridge, approaching 80-years-old, has been showing signs of wear and deterioration for more than a decade. Maine’s Department of Transportation has been conducting tests on the bridge now for several years. DOT, while emphasizing that the span was still safe as late as 2012, admitted that it was time to consider replacing the bridge before it reached the stage of deterioration where it would no longer be considered safe.

Weight limits in force on Lisbon-Durham bridge.

Weight limits in force on Lisbon-Durham bridge.

Construction began last fall and has continued throughout the winter. I shot some photos on Sunday afternoon from the Durham side of the river, capturing the current stage of the project. From these photos, you’ll see that the new bridge will be crossing the river just to the west of the existing structure.

New bridge crossing the Androscoggin just west of the current bridge.

New bridge crossing the Androscoggin just west of the current bridge.

Bridge construction is also taking place elsewhere in Maine. The prior bridge (one of the longer of the remaining multi-span truss bridges in the state) that crossed the Kennebec River between Richmond and Dresden, on Route 197, has been replaced by a more majestic span than the prior one. I also took photos of the bridge, in the final stages of construction, from the Dresden side, looking back towards Richmond and their downtown bordering the Kennebec.

The original bridge was built in 1931, but three of the five spans had to be replaced due to flooding in 1936. The bridge had been cited as being in poor condition and badly in need of replacement. A federal grant of nearly $11 million made construction possible.

New bridge crossing Kennebec River from Richmond to Dresden.

New bridge crossing Kennebec River from Richmond to Dresden.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, our infrastructure got a mark slightly above failing—that would be D+ on their last annual Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, released in 2013. While Clinton or Bush couldn’t give two shits whether you are I were on a bridge that collapsed, or not, I would think that for former governors like Christie, and perhaps, Scott Wallker, the issue ought to resonate—even Rand Paul, who at one time was for less military spending—might tack in an opposite direction from the rest of the field on infrastructure.

Instead, what you’ll likely hear from presidential candidates talking about infrastructure, will be framed in the broadest and most benign terms, with few details about how the necessary upgrades will locate the requisite funding. Most don’t have a clue (or even care) about the dire condition of our roadways, bridges, dams, and other necessary domestic infrastructure.

Currently, there is a transportation maintenance backlog all over the country for bridge replacement, with thousands of applications for federal funds sitting in limbo. Maine alone has more than 770 bridges that are more than 70 years old and need major repair or even replacement, but there isn’t funding to keep up with maintenance, let alone replacing them.

I’m making my way through David Graeber’s fascinating book about democracy, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement. I’m guessing I might be “ruined” in that I’ll never listen to someone like Hillary Clinton, or anyone else mouth platitudes about democracy and not think, “she (or he) is fucking lying.”

Graeber’s book isn’t necessarily about infrastructure, but there is a passage in the book about how the financialization of our global economy, with the basis of international trade and currency being U.S. Treasury bonds that have been scooped up in massive quantities since the 1990s by the Chinese, was one of many in the book that made me sit up and take notice. As Graeber states, while the relationship between the U.S. and China  is arguably “more complex,” China remains willing to accept the existing financial relationship, partly so that they can build their own “superstructure.”

Graeber writes, “they are acquiring more highways, high-speed train systems, and high-tech factories, and the United States is acquiring less of them, or even losing the ones they already have. It’s hard to deny the Chinese may be onto something.”

Yes, the Chinese get it that infrastructure needs to be developed, and I also bet they understand that once it’s built, it has to maintained. Not neglected like ours is in America, crumbling due to an austerity mindset and neoliberal policies that are sure to be our undoing at some point.