I had a rare opportunity to watch a bunch of TV this holiday, mostly documentaries, but they were varied in content. After watching several on history I began to realize how flimsy our construction is. The shows highlighted the work of the Romans, their great cities many of which still stand today; their public works facilities, their roads, bridges and coliseums, libraries and meeting places.
I watched as they documented ancient Mayan civilizations, the Great Wall of China, Anasazi Indian cities, the Cambodian temples of Angor Wat and structures in the Middle East dating before Christ. We are talking facilities, structures, infrastructures that while may not be in full service today; they are still standing and have varying degrees of structural integrity. Indeed they have lasted thousands of years.
We can give enormous credit to the architects, engineers and builders who constructed Westminster Abbey which dates to the 1200’s and is in full service to this day. However, these other civilizations go back thousands of years before even this!
I began thinking about our construction, of which I have been a small part for 30 years now in my career. I worked on the Twin Bridges over Cavalcade, the Hardy Toll Road, and the Bush airport all in Houston; I worked on international projects in Saudi Arabia, such as the building of the cities of Jubail and Abqaiq. Although at the time these were significant projects in my professional life, I began to reflect on how these compared to the projects that came before, the Greeks, the Romans, the Mayans, the Egyptians and the Chinese.
Really, our works sucks in comparison. This is what I am thinking now.
Most of our projects have life spans of 30-50 years. We are short term thinkers and so will our society be short term. We can’t even afford the simple maintenance for the infrastructure we have now, no less expand it. We can barely serve our population with what we have built. Our highways are falling apart; while at the same time cannot even handle the burden of traffic without causing enormous delays and additional costs to our society due to their inadequateness.
Our water supply systems might last 50 years, while Roman aqueducts still stand today. Our bridges are built to last 40-50 years and must be completely replaced after that time at costs that are up to 100 times more than the original. Case in point the Woodrow Wilson bridge in Washington DC over the Potomac River was built in the 60’s for $30 million and was just rebuilt for $3 billion.
This is shameful when Roman bridges are still standing to this day after 2 thousand years!
We are cheap, short sighted and downright stupid and yet we think we are so advanced over those primitive cultures. Yes I know, many of them used slave labor from wars won, but we replaced slave labor with technology so that is not an excuse. We have enormous technologies that none of them had and this is the best we can do? Yeah we sure are great thinkers.
Although no one person can correct this, perhaps we can all begin 2011 with the idea that we can and should be more serious about what we build. Think longer term and not just about the deadline and the next paycheck.
I and many others were deeply disturbed by the Bush and Obama bailouts during the past few years but this disappointment is exactly what I am speaking about. We can’t even match what our forefathers accomplished in the 1930’s during the Depression with their infrastructure spending boom. They built dams which will likely last 100 years, the Skyline Drive national park which will last 100 years and the TVA power grid which brought electricity to those who did not have it, again which will last 100 years. We can't even match what our grandfathers accomplished no less what these great civilizations did. Sad!
What did we get, some new guardrails and repaving on our otherwise decaying highways. We got some bridge repairs for our 50+ year old falling apart bridges. We got some lights and street signs. We will be lucky if some of these last 5 years!
OK now I am thoroughly disgusted with our leaders and our lack of work quality. So the question of the year is “Why don’t we, with our advanced intellects and education, with our monster advances in technologies and automation, with the wisdoms gained from our forefathers, why don’t we build better infrastructure and facilities for our culture?
Why don’t we build things to last?