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Monday, February 20, 2023

The Bridge To Nowhere–Creative Infrastructure For Biden’s $1.2 Trillion

Capital projects are notorious for their graft, cost overruns, and unofficial benefits.  The most recent and most obvious is the corruption scandal announced by Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy who couldn’t account for all of the billions of dollars in arms, materiel, infrastructure, and operational support generously provided by the United States and Western Europe.  “It must be here somewhere”, he said as he launched an investigation.  Some local contractors will swing for their immoral diversion of military and civil resources needed to defeat Russia and rebuild homes, roads, and bridges; but in the main everyone will look the other way.  The fight against imperialist hegemony is simply too important to worry about ‘minor accounting errors’, said one official in Zelenskyy’s inner circle, and the West nodded in generous support.  The pipeline would remain open and the flow uninterrupted.

The monsoons are Biblical in many parts of India, washing away the dirt, ordure, and dead things that collect in the hot weather.  They are also known for exposing the corruption of public works.  A major portion of the road between Bombay and Ahmedabad was a potholed, impassable stretch of rubble  Months of overloaded trucks, slamming and banging over the road, wreaked havoc.  Potholes became craters.  Shoulders were scarred, mounded, and split.  Since it was the only road between the two cities and both relied on it for the delivery of supplies and provisions, it was used and overused until the government decided it was time to repair it, and shortly before the onset of the monsoon it has been fixed, regraded, paved, and lined.

Road safety: India, Japan researchers working on smartphone-based mapping  of cracks, potholes | Deccan Herald

The rains that year were particularly heavy , and water quickly filled the new potholes and seeped under the shallow coating of tar into the ground below, and within weeks the road had returned to its rutted, impassable state. 

No one was surprised.  The network of diversion, kickbacks, and undercutting had once again been put into place.  Second-rate contractors were hired thanks to generous kickbacks to the State Department of Public Works.  Their subcontractors, engineers, and laborers all paid their dues to work.  Purchases of sand, gravel, asphalt, and concrete were far less than stipulated but the bills of sale reflected the higher amount.  The material was impure, adulterated, and second-hand.  The road, inaugurated by both the Gujarat and Maharashtra Secretaries of Public Works was no more than a dump for the rubble of other, older roads, collapsed buildings, and irregular mining. 

America, of course is nothing like the Third World, nor has it ever been victim of the endemic corruption and mismanagement as Ukraine; but human nature being what it is, no municipality, contractor, or public interest group could possibly ignore the free flow of unlimited, unaccountable finances pouring in from Washington.  It was a largesse never before imagined, a goody bag of immeasurable proportions.  Anything which even smacked of infrastructure was possible.  The President knew that the country’s nuts and bolts were rusted, and everything that underlay the country’s vital economy was broken, so fiscal restraint was an obstructionist non-starter.  The Treasure was instructed to open the floodgates, and municipalities, counties, and states were told to open their coffers to receive their share of federal generosity.

Because the United States is a nation proud of its honest, fair and universally applied democratic principles, jurisdictions were far more cagey than their Third World and Ukrainian counterparts.  Contracts were simply given to favored contractors for unnecessary projects.  The repair and refurbishing of the Paul C. McCarter Bridge over Baldwin Creek in rural Kentucky was a good example. The McCarter Bridge was a century-old, vine-covered, rusted hulk of iron and wood that had remained unused for decades.  Residents of the county had long given up the treacherous passage across the creek and drove the extra few miles over a state-maintained highway that avoided the creek entirely.

Old US 60 Iron Bridge - Freestone Road, KY, USA | Truss bridge, Old photos,  Bridge

Paul C. McCarter was a slave who had won his spurs in the famous Baldwin Creek Uprising of 1843, a bloody affair that had been put down by local militias and reinvigorated the slave-owning sympathies of the county.  McCarter had faded from memory until a local legislator realized that his name would ring loud bells in Washington, and millions of dollars could be secured for the renovation and preservation of what would be named the Paul C. McCarter bridge.  The application was quickly drawn up, submitted to Washington and a green light given for work to begin. 

The country executive and his board had, of course, no intention of seriously repairing, or rebuilding the old iron wreck across the creek; but would do enough to make it look like a deserving project.  The executive drew up a list of his most important political contributors, and ticked off their names against monies to be allocated.  Behind closed doors they were told in carefully worded but transparently obvious language that they were free to use the federal monies ‘as you see fit’, and he could assure them that he would not bother them with unnecessary, intrusive oversight.  Cost overruns in a project like this were to be expected he said, so don’t be shy about requests for more money, for all such petitions would be received without contest.

With much fanfare, balloons, and speeches, work on the bridge was inaugurated.  The black community was delighted that the government had finally recognized them and their native son; contractors were salivating over the open purse handed to them by the government, and the county executive got easily reelected because of overwhelming support from all sides.

Because the executive got the bridge designated as a historical monument, extra work would be required to respect its original design; and although a new bridge would have been much more lucrative, the state had nixed the idea, suggesting that the current Interstate option was just fine.   So contractors were instructed to tear down the bridge and to rebuild it using some of the girders from the old one.  Preservation law as very clear on this point – if the historical profile of the bridge could be retained and some of the original materials used, then anything else was possible.    So cuts, kickbacks, payoffs, friendly money and favors were doubly insured – tearing the old wreck down, and painstakingly rebuilding it.

Historic Preservation Sign | Alan Levine | Flickr

The most creative use of Biden money was The Bridge To Nowhere in a remote Inuit region of Alaska.  The indigenous population had long lobbied the state for a bridge over the I’k’oolik River connecting their small igloo community with their cousins on the other side.  Although the river was frozen for much of the year and crossing by dogsled, foot or jet ski was a simple matter, a bridge was a matter of pride.  For too long the state had treated the Inuit as second-class citizens and discriminated against them as badly as the Boers had treated their aboriginal brothers in Australia, and this modern bridge would serve as a monument to indigenous rights, culture, and longevity. 

The state and its North Slope Borough county executives saw a rare opportunity now that the Biden Administration had allocated so many funds for infrastructure within a diverse, inclusive framework.  Although they knew that the bridge was entirely unnecessary and there were as yet no passable roads on the other side of the I’k’oolik River, it would be a goldmine.  Not only would a new bridge have to be built, but a new, paved, all-weather road constructed on the other side.

Wind Sculpted Snow Patterns And Frozen River Ice On The Chilkat River Near  Haines Alaska On A Sunny Day. Stock Photo, Picture And Royalty Free Image.  Image 36425830.

With fanfare, festoons, and dignitaries, work on the bridge was begun.  It proceeded slowly, partly because of the nasty weather in that part of the country, but primarily because  delays meant cost overruns which, in light of no work actually being done, meant money in the pockets of contractors.  The ‘work’ went on and on with little visible progress when, in a surprising and uncharacteristic moment of pique (“Enough is enough”, said the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior), the funding flow from Washington was dammed, and contractors went home, the bridge one-quarter finished, with cables, guy wires, and struts dangling from its leading edge over the river.  No one except the older Inuits were disappointed.  State, county officials, and contractors were very happy indeed with this windfall, this unexpected but very welcome generosity from President Biden.

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