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Building a New WPA


We gawp at previous generations’ epic feats of engineering, yet relegate their modern equivalents to the eye-glazing category of Infrastructure. That bleak word applies mostly to places people rush through or avoid entirely. Nobody wants to linger in even the nicest airport or have an elegant incinerator next door. Everyone is in favor of sending waste away, but do we really have to think about it, or put that new water-treatment plant … here?

The result of this thoughtlessness is a nation of decrepitude. Barry LePatner, a construction lawyer who wrote the book Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets, is a Cassandra of infrastructure, bristling with alarming statistics. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 38 percent of New York State’s 17,361 bridges are either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.” The numbers are similar in New Jersey and Connecticut. “If you knew that your children on the school bus were crossing a structurally deficient bridge, no different from the I-35W in Minneapolis”—which collapsed in August 2007, killing thirteen people—“would you stand quietly by?” LePatner says. “Until Americans understand that, we’re not going to attend to this problem and we’ll see an increasing number of bridges collapse.” Elected officials know they stand to gain more from opposing one of these projects than from nudging it along. “Anyone in office who is told ‘We need $80 million to repair this bridge’ is going to say, ‘If I have $80 million coming to my state, I’d rather use it for a park and have a ribbon-cutting,’ ” says LePatner.

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama floated a proposal for a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, which would deploy $60 billion over ten years to guarantee loans and assist localities in floating bond issues. That sounds like a lot of money until you start going through the country’s to-do list. The American Society of Civil Engineers concluded in a 2005 study that the country’s infrastructure was rotting faster than it could be repaired, and that it would cost $1.6 trillion to avert a plague of exhausted levees, rampant blackouts, crumbling bridges, dysfunctional trains, and streams of filth gushing into waterways.

A new Tappan Zee has been—and will be—a hard sell, and a Calatrava design would enliven those who are just waiting to cry boondoggle. The public generally gives the thumbs-down to projects with awesome costs, geological timetables, and abundant opportunities for mismanagement, corruption, inconvenience, and environmental misery. Naysayers will point out that Calatrava’s latest achievement, a footbridge in Venice, wound up costing four times its original budget. The blame for overruns, however, usually lies more in muddled management than in elegant design. Since the price of a new bridge climbs constantly, it’s the delays and fumbles that make the price balloon. Good design can save money, trimming construction time and demanding more work from stronger steel. Ammann, for example, brought in the George Washington Bridge $5 million under budget.

In recent years, bridges have acquired fresh flights of possibility. Thanks to technological advances, a new bridge can weigh less, stretch farther, endure longer, and bear more traffic than ever. The great span of Norman Foster’s 2004 highway viaduct in Millau, France, resembles a consort of stringed instruments, lifted on slender concrete-and-steel pillars high above the valley floor. A vertical gash appears in each pylon as it rises to the roadway, so that from certain angles it appears that the traffic passes through the eye of a needle. Or consider the Millennium Bridge in Gateshead, England, designed by Wilkinson Eyre, a lovely, lyrelike thing. Its pair of steel bows strung with filaments swivels up to let ships pass beneath the arcs or down to offer pedestrians a curving boardwalk.

New York, after decades of neglecting its engineering monuments, has lately taken better care of basic maintenance than most cities do, and it’s fitfully capable of thinking big. The cataclysm at ground zero unstoppered a geyser of entrepreneurial thinking that has produced some fine if fantastical ideas. The architect Eytan Kaufman, to take one if-only instance, has worked out an alluring vision for a mile-long Rialto linking the Javits Center with Weehawken, New Jersey. The Hudson World Bridge would be a car-free playland of lawns and plazas, with a blimp-shaped convention or exhibit hall suspended overhead. It’ll never happen, but without such untethered imagination, nothing else would, either.

One of the best places to seek uplift about the city’s infrastructure is atop a cluster of stainless-steel-clad silos churning 200 million pounds of human waste. At Polshek Partnership’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, two quartets of shiny new “digester eggs” on blue-glazed pedestals rise over Greenpoint’s industrial flatlands, dazzling motorists on the Long Island Expressway. A glassed-in catwalk links their peaks, affording views of midtown Manhattan and the seamless bulk of the great machines.

From that perch, you can see the future and smell the past. In six years or so, a closed system will trap the plumes from the plant’s remaining 40-year-old open tanks, so schoolchildren won’t wrinkle their noses when they file into the visitor center. Yes, visitor center: There, a fountain designed by Vito Acconci dodges between indoors and out, reminding the neighborhood that this epic-scaled apparatus is meant to cleanse water and return it to nature. At night, the eggs are washed in blue light, courtesy of the lighting genius Hervé Descottes, who turned the plant into an urban beacon visible from Manhattan’s East Side high-rises. Prada recently scouted the complex for a photo shoot. “You can’t hide it, so flaunt it,” says Jim Pynn, the plant’s enthusiastic superintendent, with a grin. That would make a fine motto for infrastructure’s next wave.

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