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Can There Be Well-Timed Infrastructure Failures?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Yes, there can, and they happened September 8 and September 12, 2011.

As you well know, a worker was replacing a wonky piece of monitoring equipment at an electrical substation in Yuma, Arizona, and — zzt! — something flipped and San Diego went dark. For a day or so. Five million people. The traffic lights stopped working, making commutes insane; the planes all stayed on the ground; wastewater pumps failed, causing a 1.9 million gallon sewage spill; air conditioners stopped, making travelers and locals very cranky.

Naturally, what with 9/11 anniversary coming up, people assumed, as they love to assume, that terrorists had caused the problem. They hadn’t, though there are still plenty of questions exactly what did cause the problem. San Diego is connected to the Western Interconnection basically through two transmission lines, one to the west, to Arizona, where the problem started; and one to the north, towards Los Angeles, so whatever went wrong, everybody should have stayed connected. Even if the surges from the substation snafu knocked out one transmission line, the other should have stayed up.

But when the voltage wavered after the substation problem, the nearby San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station south of Los Angeles did what it was supposed to do, and it protected itself by tripping off, causing — well, causing more mayhem. Anyhow, quick like a bunny San Diego and environs was without electricity, and nobody was happy. This explanation from KPBS does a nice job explaining: the problem at the substation could have caused one transmission line to trip, but the other one? That probably tripped because either the equipment on the lines wasn’t quick enough to catch it — smart grid, where are you now that we need you? — or someone watching a monitor was out getting a coffee.

How vulnerable our infrastructure is was underscored a day or so later by the sudden closure of the Sherman Minton bridge that carries I-64 across the Ohio River, connecting Louisville and Indiana, when officials found worrying cracks in its steel. Many have pointed out the similarity of that bridge to the Brent Spence bridge crossing the Ohio in Cincinnati, which for years has needed overhaul and was mentioned by President Obama in his Sept. 8, 2011, jobs speech.

The point isn’t that our infrastructure is in trouble, which is hardly news. The point is that while we were all standing around singing “God Bless America” in 9/11 remembrances, physical reality was reminding us how vastly we had taken our eye off the ball.

I’ve written elsewhere about the disturbing implications of our national turn towards the irrational protection of what we now call the homeland.  But the most powerful point to emerge from the instructive infrastructure failures just at the moment of our orgy of remembrance was this, a cost summary of what we’ve spent on “protection” since 9/11, from the Daily Beast. The Beast estimates we’ve spent $3.2 trillion on protection — $2.6 trillion on the wars in Asia alone. If that number sounds somehow familiar, it’s because the American Society of Civil Engineers, in its regularly scheduled infrastructure report cards that always give us a big fat D, estimates we’re about $2.2 trillion in arrears on infrastructure.

Ten years post-9/11, and we’ve borrowed $2.6 trillion for wars that nobody can agree have had any benefits at all (let’s agree the $628 billion spent on intelligence, homeland security, and advanced airport fondling is at least well-meaning and leave it out of the equation). Yet ask people to spend money on infrastructure that provides clean water, safe roads, and reliable power, and we never have enough money and borrowing would be insane. But spending that same $2.6 trillion on infrastructure would have not only brought us completely up to date on infrastructure spending but put thousands of people to work here at home. Plus, we would still have $400 billion left over — almost exactly the size of the stimulus plan President Obama announced on Sept. 8.

So yes: there can be well-timed infrastructure failures, and these were them — if they wake us up to our spending priorities. A traffic engineer I like to quote says the two most important issues he deals with are not asphalt or concrete, or speed and safety, or even vehicles and pedestrians. The two issues he never stops thinking about are money and political will. These failures, at the very moment we were looking back over a decade of decisions, show us what our political will has done with our money for a decade. Now it’s time to reconsider.

The infrastructure is talking to us. If we sing a bit more softly, maybe we can hear it.

 

Blackout explanation map from the San Diego Union-Tribune; picture of Spence bridge from fox19.com; grid map from Western Electricity Coordinating Council.

 

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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