June 2, 2008
Editorial: Do Bad Results Reflect Ineptness Or Intent?
Often we find ourselves reviewing news reports that reflect bad results—if not complete failures. We ask ourselves, for example, “How could the Minnesota Department of Transportation not know that the 35W bridge in Minneapolis was in such bad shape?” We ponder, “Didn’t Louisiana and New Orleans officials know when the Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized millions of dollars to build trailer homes for Katrina victims that they had to have a place to put them upon delivery?” And, “When $5 billion plus was spent repairing levees in the New Orleans area, was the type of soil upon which the city was built not considered?”
Ineptness might be the more acceptable answer. If we have the courage, we can replace inept people. That, however, is too simple and improbable. We could substitute “mistakes” for the term, but our conclusion still leans toward intent.
As we read detailed reports about such issues, we find, for example, that MinnDOT “repeatedly failed to follow its own policies and didn’t take the advice of experts regarding the poor condition of the bridge….” That conclusion, reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, mirrors the full Minnesota legislature’s report. As we read Associated Press reports about how a major New Orleans levee is seeping, despite the fact that interlocking sheet-pile was driven 60 feet into the ground compared with 17 feet before the storm, we are told once again that soil type is the problem.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The work of Congress itself is thoroughly saturated with programs and procedures doomed to failure. For how many decades have we talked about health care, education, dependence on foreign oil, and alternative energy sources?
The unacceptable results we see are related, unfortunately, to politics and a reluctance to spend money when and where it is needed to support programs already in place. In the case of Minnesota, it is our opinion that the reluctance to take care of the 35W bridge properly is related directly to cost. And so, last summer, the bridge collapsed and 13 people died. In the case of the New Orleans and surrounding area, we believe politics was the culprit. In all such cases, it is failure on the part of planners, builders, and overseers to sit down collectively and agree to do what is called for to solve problems. In the end, fixing problems properly, though costly, may be the most economical.
Engineers and government officials have known for years about the boggy soil upon which New Orleans is built. Reports released since the advent of Hurricane Katrina indicate that “good” soil was being imported from surrounding areas to prevent just the kind of problems that are occurring now. Now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says that the boggy ground is more of a problem than first realized. More of a problem! Mankind has been building levees in New Orleans for 300 years plus. Experience should have taught us something. To make it worse, after some of the trailers were found in 2006 to contain formaldehyde levels that are said to pose long-term cancer risks, FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not move residents out of them until February 2008.
As for the trailers and mobile homes, FEMA ordered $2.7 billion worth and produced bad contract language with little or no mention of safety for residents, and in many cases provided only one page of specifications. The units were built with unsafe materials, including bad wood from China. Everyone involved is blaming everyone else involved. That, we must admit, is ineptness.
If governmental figures do not begin to put together a better performance picture, elected officials will be ejected and with good cause. Some kinds of challenges are ongoing, and the degree of importance does not change when political parties change. Just because a newly elected legislator is not inclined to support water projects, for example, it is not justified for him to help stymie solutions to ongoing challenges that everyone knows need solving. In New Orleans, water project money, including that for fixing levees, has been shuttled around to suit political needs. Too few of the problems have been solved satisfactorily, despite billions of dollars spent.
The nation’s inland waterway system is a good example of an ongoing challenge that needs nurturing. Some river structures are approaching an age of 100 years, yet the estimated life is 50. There is no evidence to believe that projects, once built, will last forever. There is not only a deterioration factor, but times and needs change. Presently an effort is being made to improve locks on the Upper Miss and Illinois rivers to improve transportation efficiency.
If the railroads had been satisfied with the size of cars and rail lines they built 100 years ago and decided to forego making improvements, the United States would be seriously hurt by the lack of transportation capability. If truck lines had stuck to their smaller semis and the U.S. had decided not to build interstates because the old narrow roadways were thought to be adequate, what an abundance of “boggy soil” we’d be in. Over the years, the river industry has adopted change to accommodate conditions and growing transportation needs. Over the years, locks have been maintained and enlarged for the same reason, but not sufficiently.
At some point, the environmentalists—who apparently have a terrible grip on government—and legislators decided it was not a good idea to spend money on our waterway system, which provides a variety of benefits and could serve better if the smaller locks were replaced with the more appropriate 1,200-foot size. Fortunately we have seen what is almost a historic change in that thinking, and the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 passed with flying colors. Passing the legislation was the first and vital step, but the outcome is still up in the air.
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