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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Sustainable Infrastructure

There is a point where the resources to proceed forward are insufficient. There comes a time when too much has been taken on and proper attention is no longer possible. It is then that we have a Vulnerable Geometry that will lead to collapse unless a major sacrifice is accepted and a limited implosion is facilitated.

On a personal scale the example is a credit card account with a that the borrower uses excessively and creates a no-win situation. Let’s say the interest rate is a simple 10% annual interest. The account holder has an income of $25,000. If he charges $1,000 he will pay back an additional $100 in the year. If he pays only $8.33 a month he will never pay off the balance. If he charges $10,000 and pays $83.33 month he will never pay down the principle. Carrying that to the next decimal point, it is $100,000 and pay $833.33 per month. If he keeps on charging more and more eventually 100% of his income goes into paying the interest. On his income he owes Federal Income taxes, maybe state income taxes and all the other required taxes. Somewhere around the $200,000 level he reaches that point of no return. He must default, file bankruptcy, or get a better job.

Now one would argue that he could not get a $200,000 credit limit with a $25,000 income. The premise is that this was a person who was doing this poor money management. Governments do this all the time.

In the 1900s America set out on a development program to pave roads all across the continent. Prior to 1906 there had been no trans-continental automobile trips and there were no paved roads between major cities and towns. Travel was by walking, horse, train and riverboat. After that first crossing, the miles of paved roads grew almost geometrically as the number of motorists set out to see the country powered by the internal combustion engines set on four wheels.

The roads were built and the number of autos increased. Local funding paid for the pavement. Private toll roads sprung up to fill a need. Soon there was the National Highway system being built with Federal taxpayer dollars. As the number of lane miles increased so did the cost of building another lane mile. On top of that new construction cost was the cost of maintaining the lane miles already built.

Culverts and bridges do not last forever. Pavement surfaces although far smoother and uniform later on were far less durable that the early stone and fired clay brick pavements. We sacrificed the ease of placement and the smoothness of asphalt and concrete for the durable brick roads. In my home town of Pittsburgh there are orange and yellow brick streets that still carry large volumes of automobiles. This pavement is 60 to 80 years old and some even older than that. They are noisy, cause vibration and are less modern that the less durable surfaces that cover much of the original brick that remains as the base layer. The difference is these roads have not required resurfacing, ever.

Even as we continued to build more roads, more bridges, more dams and airports the cost of their eventual replacement has grown nearly geometrically. At some point in time there is a mathematical limit to how much infrastructure that 100% of the budget can maintain. Once that point is reached, either the quality of the existing infrastructure decreases or there are no funds to add any more. Some trade-off must be exercised in order to maintain the level of comfort that we have grown to expect.

There is a juggling act where the performer spins a plate on a stick. The stick wiggles in a circular motion with the spinning plate perched on the tip. He must attend to the plate and the stick regularly in order to not allow the spin rate to slow down letting the plate fall. One plate is quite easy. He wants to impress the audience so he adds a second plate and stick. Both plates are easily attended to and the performance gets boring after a few minutes. We were impressed at first but our attention wanes. Now three plates would be more interesting. Four, five, six plates would be even more interesting. He sets up those plates and keeps going at the encouragement of the crowd. Ten, twelve, fourteen plates are now being spun on their sticks.

The dexterous performer has barely enough time to set up another plate and stick before he must run back to the first one to speed it up again. Soon with enough spinning plates in the air, he has zero time to allocate to setting up another plate. He is getting tired too. At some point he falters. If he tries to please the crowd with one more plate, the failure begins. A plate comes crashing down. He quickly replaces it and another plate crashes. Now he is in crises management. How many plates must he sacrifice in order to save the others and erect new ones to please the new audience members?

Plates and sticks or bridges and roads, it is the same juggling act. We built our city and suburban landscapes on the premise that there would be increasing revenues to keep up the pace of construction. Somewhere along the line we forgot about the cost of maintenance. We neglected to include the inflation factors that have made a $1 million bridge cost $50 million to replace. Sometimes we wait one day too long to close the bridge and accept that the morning commute will be an hour longer.

This is where the Principle of Imminent Collapse exposes itself. Financial managers all know that “time is money.” They understand that when one is collecting interest on money lent that the longer the payback term is, the more money the lender will make. The delay of maintenance is money too. At some point in time, you have too much deteriorating infrastructure to ever repair or replace in the time you have remaining. The only remedy is to abandon some of the existing infrastructure and consolidate services and expenses.

My mother’s town recently turned off traffic signals and erected stop signs in their place. This saves electricity and maintenance crew time replacing light bulbs and fixing corroded wires. The City of Detroit has registered a plan to raze about 10,000 houses in city blocks where the vacancy rate is nearly (but not always completely) 100%. If they get past the social justice objections, they will have the opportunity to decrease police patrols, EMT and Fire Department staffing, maintain fewer miles of pavement. They will have fewer miles of water mains, gas pipes, sewers and utility poles to service. In short, the city doesn’t have the money to maintain everything that remains, so they will be forcing people to relocate. It is far better to do a controlled implosion than to allow the Principle of Imminent Collapse to create its own New Equilibrium.

Wilkinsburg, PA and Detroit are in the vanguard of what will be transpiring in a “town near you” some time soon. What was once affordable and manageable when energy costs were low, when labor costs were low and when we were building a nation for a booming population will not necessarily be possible in the coming decades. It may not be long before rural hardwired telephone service is abandoned in favor of wireless cell tower service. The telephone companies have already abandoned the last of the original party lines in favor of the private lines that were possible while telecom revenues were much higher. In many rural areas the only way they got electricity was through the rural electric cooperatives that kept the costs low enough for the electric generation companies to deliver the power.

The world is different in this 21st century. What worked for us before won’t necessarily continue to work as we move forward. What worked for 3 billion planetary citizen  doesn't  work for 7 billion and  certainly won’t be any better with 8 to 10 billion. We need to start now to determine what will work and what will not because the future is arriving every day.