April 29, 2017 3:15 pm Last modified: 1:23 pm

Source Manager’s Journal: Still Think Infrastructure is Boring?

Like Virgin Islanders, New Yorkers love a parade and a celebration. The big parades are all on Fifth Avenue, one of the wealthiest streets on earth. So beyond the parade day visuals, it is usually well paved and clean.

On St. Patrick’s Day, at least of late, the Irish Catholic hierarchy celebrates the fact that all Irish people are heterosexual, possibly the only such race on earth. Then there is Columbus Day, when Italians celebrate the birth of a Spanish Jew who brought venereal disease and devastation to the new world. But never mind, right? Nobody’s perfect and everybody loves a parade.

And once the Irish and Italians had their parades, the other groups had to get in on the act. So the Germans, Greeks, Jews, Indians, Puerto Ricans and even some of the other non-scheduled nationalities now have parades, but not all of them are allowed on the hallowed ground of well-paved Fifth Avenue.

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The huge West Indian Day Parade is in Brooklyn. The Dominicans have even been stuck in the Bronx, the locale that many of the rich white people of Fifth Avenue would like to see the Puerto Rican Day Parade relocated to. But never mind, that’s a whole other story.

These days in the Emerald City, the parade route looks great. Smooth streets, painted lines and beautiful shots of a glorious Central Park. New and cleaned up buildings. Everything looks nice. This was not always the case. By the mid-1970s, even the glitzy floats couldn’t cover up the fact that the city was falling apart.

The marchers and floats stumbled or fell into gigantic potholes, and the lane lines, having not been painted in years, were often just vague shadows. Instead of showing the glories of Central Park along the parade route, the cameras avoided the barren wreck that the park had become.

Among other evils, New York City had fallen victim to the curse of deferred maintenance. And there was worse to come. One day a truck was taking asphalt to patch up the decaying elevated West Side Highway. It never got to its destination. The truck fell through a giant hole in the roadway. That was the end of the West Side Highway for the next 20 years while civic leaders squabbled over what to replace it with.

Then there was the collapse of the subway system, New York’s lifeblood. People being very late for work, or not getting there at all, became normal as trains broke down during their runs, paralyzing whole lines and disrupting the lives of millions of people. Deferred maintenance.

They fixed the trains only when they broke down and, when they broke down, the effects were disastrous. Somebody should have thought of that back when they were deferring. But it was too late.

Finally, the one that will be most familiar to Virgin Islanders: blackouts. The blackouts tracked the city’s decline. In 1965, when the lights went out, people helped each other, directed traffic and shared melting ice cream. In 1977, there was chaos and a total social breakdown. Some neighborhoods didn’t recover for decades. The cause: an infrastructure failure.

Politicians have a congenital defect. They like shiny new things that they can take credit for lots more than maintaining the things that we already have. Also in an age when the word “tax” is associated with evil, there is an unwillingness to pay for what we have.

The Virgin Islands is no exception to this rule and it has an unfortunate additional negative trait: a lack of respect for effective management. Public sector management – including maintaining vital infrastructure – always involves a balance of solid management skills and politics. In the Virgin Islands, politics almost always wins out.

And it is usually the politics of IBG/YBG, “I’ll be gone/You’ll be gone,” when it comes to long-term maintenance. In the end, somebody else will be left holding the bag. As in New York in the 1970s, that somebody is usually the public.

Like many long-term problems, infrastructure maintenance issues are ones where there is a tipping point. But nobody knows exactly where that is. At least, not until the truck falls through the hole in the road or the big blackout produces a social calamity. But when rolling blackouts come closer and closer together, and roads “seem to” be becoming more impassable, or when it takes a special effort to clean up litter because of a parade or event, you are receiving ominous signals. The grim reaper is getting closer.

Two painfully learned lessons: if it’s hard today, it’s going to be way harder tomorrow. And if it is hard, expensive and time consuming today, the costs and the pain become astronomical once the tipping point is reached.

In the United States, including the territory, people in positions of power are happy to talk about restoring our embarrassing infrastructure. But they are unwilling to have anyone pay for it, and those in power and their allies rarely feel the pain. Meanwhile, everyone else just gets used to it, or remembers the good old days when Virgin Islands roads were well-paved and things worked. Or when Veterans Drive on St. Thomas was “nice.”

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