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Fix it first: The importance of infrastructure maintenance

courtesy flickr user roeyahram

Wells Street bridge

This week, the Chicago Dept. of Transportation announced the reconstruction of the Wells Street bridge across the Chicago River. The work would repair the 90-year-old steel structure, pavement, bike lanes and the Chicago Transit Authority elevated rail bridge that runs atop. From start to finish, it will take a year to complete. Traffic, bikes and pedestrians will all be re-routed in the meantime. 

“So what,” you say? Aside from the traffic headache, “who cares?” The Wells Street bridge represents just one of the hundreds of important maintenance projects that take place every year. Too often, officials and the public spend an inordinate amount of time concerned with or enamored by new transportation projects like western access to O’Hare or the new Morgan street station on the CTA’s Green Line.  But the bulk of public resources go towards basic maintenance—and that is as it should be.

MPC has long advocated for sufficient transportation infrastructure funds and stressed the importance of “fix-it-first.” This mantra directs the greater part of public resources to maintaining existing roads, bridges, train tracks,  etc., before the public takes on additional responsibilities in the form of new infrastructure. It’s easy to be swept up in the excitement of new projects, and while politicians love to announce them, few get excited about supporting maintenance. But it’s the maintenance that accounts for the bulk of our resources, nearly 90% of the more than  $2 billion the state spends each year on highways.  

Much of the nation’s infrastructure was built in the latter half of the 1900’s, most notably the interstate highway system. This infrastructure is meeting its useful life, and is now in need of repair. Transportation for America, the broad scale national effort to reform transportation policy and spending at the federal level, stresses the critical importance of first maintaining and repairing our existing transportation network. This premise is core to MPC’s support of Transportation for America and why we are a proud partner of the Illinois chapter.

I suspect the $41.2 million investment in the reconstruction of the Wells Street Bridge won’t generate too many headlines, and I doubt the finished project will attract the attention of many design awards but the work will make sure what we’ve already built remains safe and is even more efficient for travelers.  This work should be celebrated just as much as any new flashy project. What’s the benefit of building new infrastructure if what we already have is crumbling?

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