Functionally Obsolete

Our deteriorating infrastructure is a bigger problem than gas prices

Soaring gas prices may be the most pressing problem commuters currently face, but it is hardly the only one. There is also the nation's deteriorating transportation infrastructure. As the round of recriminations after last summer's Minneapolis bridge collapse revealed, patching potholes won't even begin to address the dilemma. One in four of the nation's bridges are either structurally deficient or "functionally obsolete." And while the I-35 tragedy was ultimately based on a "design flaw," that's about as reassuring as the realization that a considerable portion of America's interstate system will soon be pushing retirement age.

Knoxville, despite TDOT's endless parade of orange barrels, doesn't appear to be in much better shape, either. Interstate 40 through downtown is in the midst of a massive redo aimed to reduce a recurring bottleneck, namely the short span over Gay Street that was the last remaining two-lane stretch of I-40 within Knox County. Meanwhile, barely a block south, the city's ripping up the 100 Block of Gay Street to replace an almost century-old elevated section of roadway.

Of the two, TDOT considered I-40 "functionally obsolete," too narrow to handle the traffic traversing downtown ("traversing" being the appropriate term, since most of the traffic was just passing through). Worse, while the overpasses carrying I-40 across Gay, Gill or Central don't inspire much confidence, the raised deck of the 100 Block had deteriorated to the point that my heart skipped a beat whenever a KAT bus rumbled across. Nor are such white-knuckle moments unique to Knoxville. When I worked in downtown Nashville over a decade ago, for instance, the old Church Street viaduct had a distressing habit of dropping hunks of concrete onto cars parked underneath.

Nationwide, during the '80s and '90s, government spending on infrastructure averaged less than 2 percent of GDP. The numbers have risen slightly since, but still lag the mid-1960s peak of over 3 percent brought on by build-out of the Interstate Highway system. Those numbers don't differentiate between repair and upkeep and new construction, so most of that money probably represents the myriad bypasses, connectors and added lanes brought on by "functional obsolescence" as what were once country roads struggled to keep up with suburban growth. No wonder much of our older urban street grid, like the 100 Block, is in such bad shape.

Speaking of functional obsolescence, "transportation infrastructure" in America essentially translates into roads and highways to the exclusion of all else. Mass transit, whether rail or bus, receives a pittance of the funding allocated for road construction, and Amtrak faces a constant struggle to simply survive. As a result, mass transit in most cities is an option of last resort, reserved for America's true second-class citizens, the car-less. Likewise, like Knoxville, most cities lack inter-city rail connections and those that do receive service that would embarrass Bulgaria.

Which brings me back to $4 a gallon gas. There was an interesting piece in the News Sentinel last week about how KAT's struggling to deal with rising fuel costs as, due to those costs, ridership increases. Even more interesting were the online comments, where readers lamented that they might ride the bus, if only it came closer to their house or workplace. Transit, to be viable, requires density. Unfortunately, density is what our transportation policies have spent the past six decades destroying. And not just our far-flung freeways, either: Downtown has been hollowed out for surface parking and numerous neighborhoods bulldozed down for road projects. Fourth and Gill, for example, was twice its current size before I-40 tore through on its way downtown.

Now TDOT's rebuilding it, even as the current shutdown casts doubt on whether Knoxville really needs it. And those rising gas prices and the resulting decline in driving raise even more questions. When the new I-40 downtown is finished, will it still be functionally obsolete, but for different reasons? m