UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

February 18, 2009

IF CONGRESS HAD MORE ENGINEERS AND FEWER LAWYERS. . .

Popular Mechanics - Popular Mechanics has no position on whether or not the infusion of cash will quickly create good jobs, resurrect the middle class, fuel an economic recovery or simply create more work sites for our readers and ourselves to gawk at. . . But we have definite opinions on how the money can be put to good use. No one, not even Congress, can spend $600 billion (to choose a middle number) at once. The money will be doled out a mere half-billion or billion dollars at a time, and that means that thousands of potential projects will be considered and lobbied for. Here are four general principles that the public and our leaders should keep in mind as we make go, no-go decisions.

Rule 1: Reward Competence . . . The Big Dig, the ambitious program to reroute Boston roads to reduce traffic snarls, was a good idea when it was approved back in the 1980s, but after work got started, there were too many contractors and subcontractors with flabby schedules and little accountability. It was supposed to cost $2.6 billion, but the spending eventually rocketed past $14 billion. Once the main tunnel opened, years behind schedule, hundreds of leaks were discovered, and then a section of ceiling collapsed, killing a 38-year-old mother of three. There's an engineering adage that says you can have something built well, fast or cheap: Pick any two. But . . . beware projects that are slow and expensive; it's often a sign that quality is suffering, too.

In contrast, look at Minnesota's new St. Anthony Falls Bridge, built to replace the I-35W span that collapsed on August 1, 2008. . . It deserves attention as an exemplar of how infrastructure should be done: The new bridge was finished far ahead of schedule, in less than a year, at a steep but not unusual cost of $250 million. And it will last much longer than the structure it replaced. The companies involved in the project earned a bonus of several million dollars for finishing it early. They would have lost $200,000 a day if the project missed its deadline. Such incentive programs have worked in other projects around the country. . .

Rule 2: Fund Goals, Not Technologies - Sun Power Corporation's best "back-contact" photovoltaic cell can produce energy (in the form of electricity) equal to 23 percent of the energy (in the form of radiation from the sun) that hits its surface. That's 50 percent better than a conventional solar cell, and a good argument for why the incoming administration should throw its weight behind back-contact PV cells. But wait. "Concentrating" PV panels could hit efficiencies of 45 percent in the next couple of years, demonstrating why this technology should be the new standard, instead. . . .

See the problem? Corn-based ethanol looked like a good idea, too, until someone did the science and the arithmetic and realized that it may be no better for the environment than plain old diesel fuel. That didn't stop Congress from slipping corn ethanol provisions into the 2007 energy law, a piece of legislation yea-voting Senators brought up while campaigning for the Iowa caucuses a few weeks later. . .

Perhaps we need more engineers in Congress. In the meantime, political leaders would do well to leave the technical decisions to others and try to focus their vision thing: Promote broad goals rather than specific machines and materials. . .

Rule 3: Invest in Information It's hard to keep up with the numbers, but there are about 150,000 structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges in the United States-less than there used to be, by the way. We are making some progress. So which of these bridges should be at the top of this fix-or-replace list in the new era of ample funding? Hmm, no one really knows. . .

The same principle applies to all sorts of infrastructure. No one knows how many miles of levees wind their way through America's lowlands, or how many lives they guard, or how many burrow-loving mammals are scratching out homes beneath them, to their own detriment and ours. Given the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, the episodic drowning of portions of the Midwest and the perpetual threat hanging over the heads of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other residents of Sacramento, Calif., you'd think we'd pay more attention to these humble mounds of earth and rock. . .

Rule 4: Address the Biggest Problem And the winner is...water. We can pour the concrete to fix every highway, and some decade soon we may even figure out fusion and stop worrying about energy, but the amount of freshwater in the world is fixed, and it's not enough. Soggy Atlanta had severe water shortages last year. Three more years of drought, and Lake Mead could drop below the level of one of the major intake valves supplying Las Vegas

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Only 111 billion is slated for infrastructure and "science."

http://www.recovery.gov/

February 18, 2009 8:47 PM  
Anonymous m said...

"Corn-based ethanol looked like a good idea, too, until someone did the science and the arithmetic..."

In the US it takes more fossil energy to produce than is gained by, the production of ethanol. All it took to know this was the knowledge of the amount of energy required for the distillation of ethanol and its efficiency. Well known, well publicized, often elementary chemistry textbook studies. It was clear that without solar power to cover the energy cost of purification, and tax giveaways to cover economic costs, corn ethanol would not be either economical or energy positive. This does not consider the cost of growing or transporting the ethanol. The added increased costs to foodstuffs, and so on.

But as with so many environmental and energy issues, public relations corporations, greed, political forces, cuteness, and the fear and madness of crowds quickly overcome reason and knowledge. By itself, the term "tax incentives" is sufficient to cause psychosis in more than half the population.

February 19, 2009 9:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once we get about 20% of people with a bachelor level of scientific competence we won't tolerate this kind of shit anymore. I hope we can make it till then with all these lawyers running around masturbating with litigation and lubing up with all our natural recources.

February 19, 2009 6:06 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home