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Deconstructing construction

By Bernard Chapin
web posted May 10, 2004

In Chicago, aside from the complete obsolescence of the roads due to astronomical population growth, the two major delays in successfully getting from point A to point B are winter weather and debilitating construction projects. Although, as one can imagine, when winter construction is initiated, going from point A to point B is not advisable in the first place.

This writer in particular should know, as my daily roundtrip commute has been 45 miles for the past six years. While six years time does not a traffic expert make, I can certainly state with authority that Chicagoland (the name combining the city with the suburban sprawl adjoining it) is now booming with government funded construction.

Between 2005 and 2011, Illinois plans on spending $8.3 billion on highway construction. For a state that has had serious budgetary problems, this is no meager sum. Given that nearly all of these ventures will be initiated between April 1st and October 1st, the phrase "endless summer" now has a new, and distinctly viral, connotation. I also have no doubt that the amount of scheduled "improvements" will replicate far beyond Springfield's original expectations. This is especially true given that the House of Representatives voted to allocate $275 billion for future highway and transit projects last month.

It is my belief that much of this construction is unnecessary, and, even when roadwork is a necessity, the projects are completed with the maximum amount of inefficiency as is humanly possible. But what else would one expect from a government sponsored initiative?

In the years since 1986, when I first received my license, I've noticed that not only has the quantity of highway construction increased but its quality has changed as well. It is now more invasive and insensitive to the needs of commuters than ever before. This was hammered home to me the other day when, after getting off the interstate to begin my crawl home locally, I noticed a sign on the right reading: "Coming Soon--Clark Street Closed." This sneak preview was as welcome to me as mandatory attendance at Jennifer Lopez's next cinema extravaganza.

Most of the time, there is absolutely no reason why they should be shutting down an entire road for construction purposes. In years past, they would condense lanes or do only one side at a time. Now they seal off entire avenues from our already scanty lifelines on a whim, and, if we don't speak up about it, they will continue to do so forever. At best, road closure is an undue inconvenience to the taxpayers, and, at worst, it is a cause of complete chaos as the area I live in already has enough natural obstacles to qualify it for a monster truck event.

In my case, shutting even one road down causes serious suffering as I have precious few ways in which to get home. Yet, public agencies care nothing for the needs of drivers like me because they are totally insulated by government funding. If we don't complain, they get paid, and, if we do, they still get paid.

Many might respond to this article by saying, "We need the roads fixed" or "new extensions help commuters." These are valid arguments in a minority of situations but, in most, there's nothing much wrong with the roads before the government sabotages their effectiveness by installing perpetual work teams, big machinery, and signs threatening imprisonment if somebody accidentally hits one of their welfarees.

The best example of the illusory, "we need the roads fixed," argument is the southern part of Interstate 94, which is known to Chicagoans as "The Dan Ryan." I drive on this thoroughfare everyday, and, in March, it became apparent to all who traversed it that the Dan Ryan was in very poor shape indeed. There were numerous potholes and one needed to be hyper vigilant simply to switch lanes. When I noticed that construction was planned for his stretch of the highway I thought, "Well, okay, it needs it." Yet the construction planned had absolutely nothing to do with improving the texture of the road.

In fact, before the construction and lane alterations began, the authorities did a most peculiar thing–they fixed most of the potholes. A few days before the official orange barreling commenced, workers came through in the middle of the night and filled in all of the ruts. The surface became fully functional once again, yet, only after making the road viable did they begin the serious business of shutting down some lanes and wasting everyone's time and money.

Disastrous planning and inefficiency appear to be integral to roadwork in general. It usually proceeds in the following fashion. The first thing the authorities do is to give notice that a particular area is about to be riddled with construction. Then they shut down a lane or two the week preceding the arrival of the work teams. Perhaps the reason for this is that they want the people to have extra time in which to fully appreciate the mindlessness of the public works that they are about to be victimized by. Then activities are inaugurated in a fraction of the area that's been roped off. Remember, this is for solid reasons because if they worked on the whole thing at once six months of employment could turn into only three.

In my mind, there are a couple of solutions to this conundrum. First, one way to decrease construction is to exploit the government's own bureaucratic mindset. Let's make them work before any of their projects are approved. They should be forced to clear their schemes with local residents before scheduling them. This will, at the very least, delay their ability to inconvenience half the city. This could really be effective as the last thing local merchants and residents want is work that is unnecessary or superfluous to their lives.

The second, and most effective way of solving the construction problem, is that we as taxpayers must not, as a general rule, approve of any increase in taxes – regardless of the way in which the increase is presented to us. This is true for all levels of government.

Construction should be on the lips of every great leviathan critic as nowhere is the misallocation of funds more evident than in the current highway bill. That thing was so loaded with pork it should have been sponsored by Bob Evans.

The only thing for certain is that if we continue to be subtle with our legislators then they'll continue to treat us like cash-o-matics. What should be remembered here as a general commandment is that if you give the government money, they will torture you.

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at bchapafl@hotmail.com.

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