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Addressing a structural deficiency

An architectural historian has a plan to save nation's aging infrastructure

Sarah Goldhagen says the American Society of Civil Engineers puts the cost to repair US schools, roads, and sewer and transit systems at $1.6 trillion. Sarah Goldhagen says the American Society of Civil Engineers puts the cost to repair US schools, roads, and sewer and transit systems at $1.6 trillion. (MICHELE McDONALD/GLOBE STAFF)

Sarah Goldhagen taught architectural history and theory for 10 years at Harvard. She and her husband are now raising two kids in Newton. She writes at home. She's done a classic book on the great architect Louis Kahn, and she's working on another that will try to define, once and for all, the nature of modernism.

At the moment, though, she's obsessed with a less exciting kind of architecture.

Her interest is infrastructure.

Yes, the very word puts people to sleep.

But wait. Goldhagen says to think of it as a detective story.

A bridge collapses in Minnesota. A steam pipe explodes in New York. Water in some cities is found to contain lead. A utility line blows here in Boston. A beam cracks under the Tobin Bridge. Lower Beacon Hill and Back Bay houses are at risk of sinking. Schools have boarded-up windows but don't have books.

It's like an Agatha Christie mystery. Slowly, the detective begins to realize that maybe, just maybe, all these scattered events are linked. There's a pattern here. A common criminal.

Our infrastructure isn't the work of a criminal, but it's a kind of crime. Much of it is a disaster waiting to happen, or already happening. "These are not discrete events," says Goldhagen.

What, exactly, is infrastructure? For Goldhagen, it's everything we build that is meant to serve the public: highways, streets, bridges, tunnels, sidewalks, transit systems, utilities of all kinds, parks, soccer fields, even public schools and colleges.

She says we need to think of it all as one integrated whole, and then ask who's taking care of it. No one, it turns out.

Her facts are frightening. Here's a small sample:

More than 160,000 US bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete.

There are 1,237 toxic waste sites in the United States.

The cost of returning US schools to an acceptable physical condition is $286 billion.

The cost of making aging drinking-water systems safe is $11 billion.

The National Park Service estimates its maintenance backlog at $6.1 billion.

The number of unsafe dams, a potential threat to human life, rose by one third in the last decade.

Most of these numbers are taken from independent studies by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Goldhagen published these and other facts in a recent article in The New Republic magazine, which is where I first learned of her interest in infrastructure. Summing up, the ASCE estimates that the cost of bringing US infrastructure up to a minimum acceptable standard is, oh, about $1.6 trillion.

As Goldhagen points out, and as any traveler knows, countries in Asia and Europe often do a much better job than we do. In Vienna a couple of years ago - a city that experienced far more disruption in the 20th century than any American city - I was shocked by the superb public transportation system. Yet New York, despite decades of effort, still hasn't got its Second Avenue subway built. Boston can't put together its Urban Ring. Goldhagen contrasts our decline with the success of places that have renewed themselves, like Vancouver, in Canada, and Barcelona.

So what's the answer? Goldhagen has first a diagnosis, then a suggestion.

"The problem," she says, "is that our political world is organized into towns, cities, states, and the federal government, but the practical world is organized differently. We are now a nation of metropolitan regions. The way we govern doesn't fit the way we live."

Metro regions are chopped up into many municipalities, none of which can accomplish much by themselves. They may even bleed across state lines. No branch of government has either the funds or the power to deal with infrastructure - except for one: the federal government.

Goldhagen admires examples where private initiative has produced public benefits, as in the creation of the new Millennium Park in Chicago. But she thinks privatizing can't be a solution. She cites the classic economist Adam Smith, who wrote that since public works aren't usually profitable, they have to be funded by "the sovereign or commonwealth" - that is to say, by central government. But federal spending on infrastructure has been dropping for years.

She notes that elected officials usually have limited terms and, therefore, short-term ambitions. But infrastructure is a long-term project.

Her proposal? A National Infrastructure Agency.

It would have a capital budget, like any well-run private institution (and like many nations). It would allocate money over the long haul, pursuing goals that now get sacrificed for short-term advantages, like tax cuts. The agency's purpose - again, like that of a private institution - would be the care, maintenance, and renewal of our society's physical plant.

It's a goal as simple as it is ambitious, and I think the day will come when we'll have to adopt it.

For now, though, I'm interested in finding out how Goldhagen ever got involved in such a topic as infrastructure. She says her interest dates to a time, years ago, when she lived in Brooklyn.

"It was the time of the height of disarray of the subways," she says. "Graffiti. Rats. Homeless people. Constant malfunctions. Raucous, unintelligible PA systems. Sudden stops and long delays in July, when the temperature in the cars hit 120.

"Eventually, the city cleaned the subways up, got rid of graffiti, and bought new cars with air conditioning. New York became a wholly different place to live. I realized then what a difference the quality of infrastructure could make in the experience of urban life."

More recently, she saw an exhibit on the 20th-century New York planner Robert Moses. "Moses did some good things and some bad," she says. "But the exhibit gave you a sense of a time when there was a commitment to the quality of the public world. Moses got federal, state, and local government to work in harmony to fund and build parks, swimming pools, roads, bridges, tunnels" - in short, public infrastructure.

Moses, she says, put architects and city planners in touch with politicians. "Today those groups don't even communicate," says Goldhagen. "There's a distrust of professional expertise, the kind of expertise a trained, experienced architect or city planner can bring to a situation."

She laments what she calls "an utter breakdown in communication between architects, landscape architects, and planners on the one hand, and politicians on the other."

By way of contrast, she notes that half a century ago - in the Moses era - Josep Lluis Sert, dean of the school of design at Harvard, was also chair of the Cambridge City Planning Commission and a close adviser to both the Harvard president and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

"Infrastructure," says Goldhagen, summing it all up, "is where architecture and politics merge."

Robert Campbell, the Globe's architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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