Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Mistake By the Lake?

In the years after the Second World War, a particular idea became popular in cities across North America: the downtown expressway. Usually elevated, but sometimes buried underground as in Montreal, these expressways would provide fast, smooth routes into and out of a city's downtown core, so that commuters would not have to spend their mornings and evenings stuck in traffic on roadways that had not been meant to carry that kind of load. San Francisco got into the business with the Embarcadero Freeway, Seattle built the Alaskan Way Viaduct through its downtown, and Toronto built the Gardiner Expressway between the skyscrapers and the waterfront.

At the time, of course, it was a perfectly rational choice. In the 1940s, the automobile was the latest "it" thing and people everywhere were springing for the luxury of their own sets of wheels. At the time, an expressway like the Gardiner was seen by planners as necessary to ensure that traffic continued to flow; it wouldn't be for some decades before the traffic issue began to be seriously questioned. Decades during which the Gardiner was heavily used, and let's face it, things don't stay pristine forever when you've got tens of thousands of trucks and hatchbacks jouncing down them every day.

Which brings us to the present day. The Gardiner is close to sixty years old in some parts, and chunks of concrete fall off it so often now that it barely qualifies as news. ("The Gardiner is still falling apart, and Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.") The city is expediting its repair calendar, in which loose chunks of the highway are removed before gravity has a chance to do the job, but that's only treating the symptoms. The core problem is that winter salt and meltwater and rain infiltrate cracks in the concrete, corroding the steel supports and introducing new weaknesses into the structure.

According to the city engineering department, it's essentially cosmetic damage and the highway itself remains in good shape. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel that the Gardiner can be taken as a microcosm of our modern infrastructural deficit.

A portion of the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto.

In those long-vanished years, before and after the Second World War, things were built. In the United States, there were the hydroelectric dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority and beyond, which brought jobs and electricity to places which wanted for both, and after the war the Interstate Highway System made it feasible for new-minted car owners to drive from one end of the country to the other. In Canada, construction on the Toronto subway's first stage began in the late 1940s, and transportation projects such as the Gardiner were joined by Highway 400 and Highway 401, and in subsequent decades Ontario addressed its electricity needs by building some of the largest nuclear power plants in the world. Simply put, in that time they built things; it was not difficult to get infrastructure projects off the ground.

The problem, the problem we live with today, came after those projects were finished - when it seems like society collectively elected to rest on its laurels. Perhaps the threat of nuclear war had something to do with it - maybe the subconscious recognition that everything could be destroyed tomorrow, so what was the point of it? The future could take care of itself. Now we're in the future, and we have to deal with infrastructure that's steadily aging in the worst economic climate since the Depression.

It's not as if there weren't opportunities. There were many. If you could bring a random traveller from, say, 1969 to the modern day, they would probably be shocked by how much hasn't been done, by the degree to which heavily-used infrastructure in their day has not been supplemented or replaced. I'm not sure what the problem was - all I know is the effect; that it seems to be we've simply got out of the business of building for the future. In the United States, the American Society of Civil Engineers argues that an investment of $2.2 trillion over five years would be necessary to bring that country's infrastructure up to par. Five years ago, a report from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities argued that Canada's infrastructure needed a $123 billion infusion to head off a "collapse."

It all boils down to the fundamental weakness of governments, and the willingness of officials to kick the can down the road to future generations - the casual assumption that things will only get better, and that in the future society would become so much more wealthy that it'd be cheaper, all things considered, to put off maintenance until tomorrow and keep taxes low today. For decades, Canada and the United States have been saddled with leaders who made a science of kicking the can, who made the present day prosperous by writing the future IOUs.

The future isn't just soon. It's now, and there's not much we can do with a few fistfuls of paper.

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