This summer I accompanied a group of amazing high school students on a mission trip to inner-city Denver. As rewarding as that experience was, another highlight was the drive across Iowa and Nebraska on Interstate 80. I think it is a beautiful drive. Always have, always will. Don’t judge.
Many of us probably experience two things related to the interstate highway system. We enjoy the relative ease of traveling long distances safely and efficiently. We also take it for granted since it has now been a part of our lives for decades.
Yet, go back in time and imagine the disruptions to normal living caused by building the interstate highway system. I-80 goes through mile after mile of corn fields in Iowa. Farmers that previously had fields in close proximity to their homes now had to potentially travel many miles to get to a field that used to be ”just down the road.” To get there now required an overpass to get to the other side of this transportation marvel.
Grandpa and Grandma perhaps lived just a mile south of you. Now, they are a five-mile drive because the interstate came through right between your farms.
Pre-interstate, highways used to come through town. Travelers bought gas, ate lunch at the local restaurant and stayed overnight at the motel. Now this all happens outside of town at the interchange, if there is one. Ask yourself if you honestly want to go to Colorado via I-80 or Highway 6? Highway 34? You get the picture, right?
If you had not noticed, I-80’s route through Nebraska is…flat. There are not many lakes and rivers of any size. Yet, notice how many recreational lakes and state parks are scattered along the route. These enjoyable features also exist because the highway overpasses needed soil, which was permanently ”borrowed” from what are now recreational lakes.
What we now enjoy as a very useful, and arguably necessary transportation link was not built without a certain amount of disruption.
Critical infrastructure systems
There are arguably five critical infrastructure ”pipelines” in the United States: electricity, transportation, food, water and oil/gas. You may have a different list, but the principle is still valid. For each of these to provide benefit to society, there will also be disruptions to a number of individuals along the required pathways. Some sacrifice is frequently required by a few to provide benefit to the many. A clear example of this principle is the interstate highway system.
As I write this, there are a number of critical infrastructure projects in the Iowa news. Two of note include a proposed high-voltage power line that is needed in order to provide electric superhighways that will serve as pathways out of the state for additional generation sources, specifically wind energy. A large oil pipeline project is also proposed across the state to serve as a superhighway that will help move oil out of the Upper Midwest to markets and refineries elsewhere.
Something appears to be changing in the way society responds to these disruptions by major infrastructure projects. In the past, there were objections, but when the projects primarily served customers in the host state, the objectors were typically NIMBYs – Not In My Back Yard. They were generally supportive, but only if it affected someone else’s property.
Now we are seeing projects that do not as clearly benefit the property owners through which the project passes. The NIMBY argument seems to be shifting to BANANA – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone. Perhaps these folks populate the CAVE group – Citizens Against Virtually Everything.
As technical professionals we have the privilege to work on many of these infrastructure projects, it is wise for us to consider how this emerging trend relates to our efforts. To suggest a few:
- We must always keep front of mind that our work should conform to a reasonable plan and serve the health, welfare and safety of the public
- Our work must conform to all codes and standards
- We must consider environmental, political and regional factors
- Gather, evaluate and respect input from as many stakeholders as reasonable
- We must strive to provide the most value for a project with the fewest disruptions to stakeholders
- Honestly evaluate the cost-benefit ratio of the project
If we maintain our professional focus, my hope is that decades from now the initial project disruptions will fade in light of the ongoing benefits to society that result from successfully executing critical infrastructure projects.