September 25, 2021

Needles, Blood, and the Wanton Destruction of Infrastructure

Guest Opinion
By Gary Howe | Aug. 28, 2021

When I watch movies, I squirm when needles go into skin and when blood oozes all over the place. These seem like pretty common reactions among moviegoers, but I wonder how many other people also have to avert their eyes when bridges, streets, and buildings are destroyed? When Godzilla and King Kong took their dispute to Hong Kong in Godzilla vs. Kong, I tensed up in my seat and could barely watch.

“Hong Kong will never recover from this,” I thought. “That one bridge alone costs billions, and they just destroyed three bridges, plus the adjacent buildings!” It's worse than watching ER.

Witnessing my unease with all things needles, blood, and destruction, my moving-going partner, in a predictable fashion, will remind me, "It's only a movie. It's not real." So I take a deep breath and try to enjoy the show. Popcorn helps.

However, I'm still concerned. The gouging we take for a bucket of popcorn at the theaters is nothing compared to the actual cost of building towns and cities, both the private and public expenditures. A modest building in a global city like Hong Kong can easily cost $100 million, and more likely, it will be more. How many multi-million investments did Kong crush simply by hurling himself around for momentum? Does insurance cover epic titan battles?

Then there's the streets and bridges. I'm not sure which actual bridges Godzilla pulverized to bits during the smash fest, but the Lai Chi Kok Bridge, built in 1968, would cost a minimum of $15 billion to replace today. During the film, I lost track of the number of similar overpasses and pedestrian walkways that suddenly met the end of their useful life. The destruction comes swiftly and devastatingly. Smash. Crush. The horror and the humor.

In purely economic terms, the epic titan battle would have put Hong Kong in a staggering trillion-dollar hole, and that's not even counting the cost of a few thousand people becoming instantly homeless and jobless. But, of course, Hong Kong is a wealthy city with a GDP of $370 million, so perhaps it could rebound. But what about cities in poorer countries?

Haiti has been the site of multiple epic events, the latest of which happened Aug. 14, when a magnitude 7.2 earthquake hit the Tiburon Peninsula. Over 70,000 homes were destroyed. The nation was still reeling from the 2010 earthquake, which destroyed a quarter-million homes and over 30,000 commercial buildings, in addition to public infrastructure. Rebuilding Haiti, again, will cost untold billions. Where will the money come from? It takes economic growth — or debt — to build communities.

All of this runs through my head when I watch monster movies and superhero films. Unfortunately for my movie-going experience, it can all be too much. Recently, with infrastructure week turning into infrastructure months on the national scene, I've had to watch the news from between my fingers, too. I'm concerned about how we'll pay to maintain and grow the places we call home. I worry about their overall economic stability — whether it's Kong's fictional Hong Kong or my own — and all-too-real — country, state, and hometown.

Looking between my fingers at the American Jobs Plan currently being debated in Congress, I understand two worrisome things: One, Congress isn't adequately planning for a titan clash in one of our major cities, let alone for the destruction that we know climate change is bringing. And two, the plan continues to throw too much borrowed money at new liabilities instead of fixing the streets and bridges we already have. 

New streets are like new cars: They are worth less the minute you drive them off the lot. Yet, the American Jobs Plan calls for new roads and bridges. Locally, we have a new bridge proposal that many people hope will be paid for through the Plan's passage. But how will we pay to maintain it over its lifespan and replace it when it reaches the end of its life? A $50 million investment in a new bridge will need to generate at least that much in additional tax revenue over its lifespan, and that will require economic growth. And if a giant titan tortoise emerges from the depths of Boardman Lake and destroys it sooner, then we're really in trouble. 

I will hold out hope. Perhaps Congress will develop a final plan that will fund transit and rail, retrofit our communities for future climate challenges, and prepare us for the next 100 years. But, of course, I understand that the spending bill can only be as good as bipartisanship allows. Still, it's tough to watch, and I find myself squirming in my chair as I scroll through my feed. If only it were just a movie.

Gary Howe lives in Traverse City, Michigan, and hopes mega monsters don't pop up from the depths of West Bay — he couldn't bear to watch it.  


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