Friday, March 31, 2017

March 31, 2017--The United States of Bangladesh

Every time I meet an overseas visitor at Kennedy Airport, when I drive them into town on the patched-up Van Wyck and disintegrating Brooklyn Queens Expressways, and then take them onto the eroding FDR Drive, I'm embarrassed.

Not knowing what to say, with Manhattan swagger I say, "In the Big Apple we're too busy running the world's economy and going to museums and Broadway shows, we're so involved with these higher pursuits that we don't pay too much attention to minor matters such as potholes or care that much about garbage in the streets."

If my Spanish friend looks at me skeptically, I say, "Smooth streets and clean sidewalks are for Naples, Florida. And who wants to live there?"

America has the world's strongest economy and the most powerful military. We also are the leader in innovation and entrepreneurship and are home to world-class universities and research centers. Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon are all American companies though most of their products are manufactured in China, so what's the big deal if an interstate bridge or two collapses of its own weight after acquiring a terminal case of rust?

But, I still am embarrassed when I experience the mess that is JFK through the eyes of someone just off the plane from India.

Speaking of India, across its eastern border I've visited the Ford Foundation office in Dacca, Bangladesh. It is one of the world's poorest countries, prone to devastating monsoons, floods, famine, and epidemics, but Shahjalal Airport puts most in America to shame. Everything is better--from the signage, to the upkeep and baggage handling, to the nearby parking, and ease of access by train or car. In no time after landing, you're in downtown Dacca, where there are no potholes and hardly any garbage on the streets.

Up in Maine, where we soon will be, on many roads, even the county roads between towns, after driving around for a month or two we need to get our tires realigned. We do that three or four times a season and at least once a year we have to buy two to four new tires. The roads are that bad--rutted, disintegrating, and turning at an accelerating rate from asphalt to gravel.

For years I've been quipping that maybe the state and county DOTs should stop patching them and let the roads return to their original condition. Then we could all get horses and wagons. We'd save on fuel costs--horses need oats, cars gas--and this I suppose would be very green-minded, except for what horses leave behind.

While I've been joking cynically about this, some places are doing just that--letting roads return to their natural state. "Natural state" meaning they way they were before any were paved.

In Omaha, for example, the New York Times reports--

That it would cost $300 million to repave the streets most in need of rehabilitation. They simply do not have the money, so they are converting most to gravel. Reclaiming them as they euphemistically say. As if this were charming.

And Omaha is not unusual. Twenty-seven other states are also reclaiming roads in significant need of attention.

It would not be so unusual to see this going on in fiscally-strapped rural communities, but in Omaha and elsewhere this conversion is reaching into the downtowns.

Donald Trump has called for a $1.0 trillion infrastructure fund and may have won congressional approval for it if he hadn't make the mistake of tangling Congress up in the snake-pit of repealing and replacing Obamacare.

While towns and cities wait for the federal government to act--which may take forever--in the meantime they are not making America great again but retreating to a less-desirable past. Could be another metaphor.


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