Accountable for Infrastructure
EDWARD V. REGAN
"Maintenance is perhaps the single most important element of government's stewardship obligation. It is also the element that is easiest to defer, and the one most likely to be cut from the current expense budget." 1
National Council on Public Works Improvement,
Final Report to the President and Congress,
The collapse of New York City's West Side Highway in 1974 was a historic event. It demonstrated that public facilities essential to our lives and economy could fall victim to simple neglect. The collapse occurred because for years the city had failed to maintain the reinforced concrete roadway or to paint the steel structure that held it up. Unprotected from the elements, the highway lost the capacity to carry traffic—as was vividly shown when a truck plunged through its weakened deck.
Unfortunately, the West Side Highway incident was only the first in a series of major infrastructure failures in the New York metropolitan region. By the mid‐ 1970s, for example, it became widely acknowledged that billions of dollars of new investment would be required to forestall the total breakdown of the city's worldrenowned subway system. The collapse of a bridge over Connecticut's Mianus River was further evidence of the fragility of the public infrastructure. Crumbling walls and leaky roofs in many New York City school buildings created poor learning conditions and probably aggravated the already high student dropout rate. Finally, in the spring of 1988, New York City announced that the Williamsburg Bridge, a vital East River thoroughfare, was unsafe and would have to be closed, pending an assessment of costly repair and replacement options. Thus dramatized, issues