Thursday, September 01, 2011

We Don't Build Big Things Anymore

In the twenty-first century, things go lightning fast. I can send a message to someone in Australia in a matter of a few seconds. Cars speed around the track at Indy at more than 220 miles per hour. And today's computers are clocked in gigahertz. My first real computer, a Tandy, had a clock speed of about 6 megahertz.

But some things have actually slowed down. The speed of progress in such things as infrastructure projects and space exploration, for example, seem to take forever if they get done at all. And, though it might always have been the case, gridlock in Washington seems to make any kind of legislation take forever.

In 1930, for example, the ground was broken for the construction of the Empire State Building. It was finished 18 months later in 1931. In 1956, construction began on the Internet Highway System. Most of the important stretches were completed by the mid-1970s, though it took another 15 years to complete the entire system as originally conceived. So 35 years after the first shovel of dirt was turned, the Interstate system was finished. That seems like a long time, but it has taken 20 years just to build a few miles of Interstate 69 between Indianapolis and Mexico. When completed, it will be the longest north-south Interstate in the U.S. But when it will be finished is anyone's guess.

In 1962 Pres. John F. Kennedy set this country's space program in high gear, vowing to land a man on the moon within the decade. That was accomplished on July 20, 1969. It took only seven years to complete the moon project. These days, the U.S. isn't sending any humans into space at all, at least not in its own spacecraft. It has been almost 40 years since a human being has walked on the moon. That's an entire generation. And we've been nowhere else in space either outside Earth's orbit. What if the early explorers suddenly just stopped going anywhere because their home country's decided they didn't want to spend the money to send them places?

In the decade of the 1930s, the government put people to work on megaprojects such as the Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, and most of the other dam projects in the West. Things seemed to get done in short order. We set forth goals to reach, and we reached them. Whether it was a barrage of skyscraper projects in New York, the nationwide Interstate Highway System, dams in the West, or the space program, we set the goals, we started the projects, and we completed them. Then we would set new goals. That cycle seems to have ended. Our infrastructure is aging. There has been no new and improved nuclear power plants built since the 1970s. It takes decades to build stretches of single highways. Our manned space program is nonexistent, and buildings don't get built as fast as they used to.

The new World Trade Center tower is still under construction after spending years in the planning stage. It is scheduled to be completed in 2013, seven years after groundbreaking. The Empire State Building took less than two years to build.

Why does it take us so long these days to get major projects accomplished, or even started? Part of the reason has to be the fault of Congress. Most public works projects must be funded by the government. And we don't want to spend any money these days, especially the Republicans. If projects don't get funded, they don't get built. Things are also slowed down by the Environmental Protection Agency. I'm all for protecting the environment, but sometimes these agencies get carried away with regulations and red tape. Finally, there always seems to be grassroots movements standing in the way of progress. The I-69 project in Indiana, for example, was delayed for many years due to law suits and protests by citizens groups who were against it for one reason or another, ranging from environmental protection to being against the sale of farmland.

Our economy is in shambles and the unemployment rate has been too high for too long. Funding infrastructure projects would help alleviate the unemployment problem and build a fire under our economy. It would also give us new bridges, roads, and other structures that are sorely needed. It's just too bad that the obstructionists in Congress, the Republicans, seem to always get their way.

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