OPINION | Earth swallows man, yields metaphor


The earth opened in downtown St Paul Tuesday, swallowing pedestrian David Clark. A sinkhole, created by soil erosion due to water pipe leakage, undermined the brick sidewalk’s structural integrity, precipitating Mr. Clark’s fall. In other words, Minnesota’s infrastructure eroded to the point that it couldn’t support people’s use. 

Am I the only one seeing a huge metaphor here?

Erosion, as any farmer, civil engineer or hydrologist knows, is a regular part of life. It is the natural wearing away of land by water, with soil carried by water suspension and deposited in another place. Sink holes occur when water creates a pocket below the earth’s crust. Eventually, the crust collapses, revealing the growing sinkhole. In Mr. Clark’s case, his weight was just enough to accelerate the open hole’s appearance.

Sink holes happen all the time. Not many but enough so that public works crews are reasonably well-versed in their repair. By its very nature, sink hole erosion occurs out of sight. When we notice it, the erosion is well underway.

Three years ago, the I-35W bridge, crossing the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis, collapsed. Bridges, unlike sink holes, are seriously engineered structures. Bridges, as we all declared in horror and wonderment, don’t just fall down. Well, sometimes, when bridges’ structural integrity is compromised by the loads they bear, they do.

Whether it’s a sinkhole cause by a water main leak or the 35W bridge collapse, we’re constantly reminded that transportation infrastructure requires regular maintenance and recapitalization. Nothing is permanent. Roads, bridges, sidewalks, dams, and ports are important because they support communities by facilitating commerce, trade and exchange. Regular infrastructure use predictably increases wear but natural processes will eventually degrade all objects.

We have a word for this: entropy.

Entropy refers to the observed universal process of decay. It’s the idea that, over time, things break down. The Second Law of Thermodynamics declares that isolated systems will eventually achieve equilibrium. It is used to explain nature’s irreversibility. For physicists, entropy involves a lot of decreasingly efficient heat transfers but, for most of us, it means that things fall apart.

I’ve watched enough Nova specials to know that the Great Pyramids of Egypt have lasted for 4,000 years. Constructed as royal burial structures, the Giza Necropolis comes to mind, the pyramids are massive piles of stone. While the polished, decorative stone facade was plundered early on, the rough base materials remain. Four millennia later, decay, however slowly, is observed.

The Egyptian government, recognizing its historical treasures, is working to stabilize the pyramids, further slowing their natural crumbling. The alternative is reconstruction but rebuilding the pyramids destroys their cultural significance and value. No one, particularly the Egyptians, wants massive new burial pyramids. However, if the road from Cairo to the Giza Plateau begins falling apart, immediate repair is initiated. Getting the world’s tourists to Giza is a critical national economic activity.

Infrastructure is important because it supports and expands human activity. We regularly buy and sell all sorts of stuff, relying on roads, rails and rivers to move most goods. Coastal Seafood receives same-day air freight shipments and Peace Coffee pointedly delivers stock via bicycle but most homes and businesses ship and received goods conventionally.

The same transportation network that moves goods facilitates public safety, education, health care, recreation and every imaginable quality-of-life activity. Without roads, bridges, airports, river ways, lake ports and railroads, Minnesota wouldn’t look like Minnesota.

It’s been said before but bears repeating: infrastructure requires regular, on-going investment. During recessionary periods, like now, infrastructure replacement and upgrade can also function as an economy stimulating investment. This is why President Obama proposes a new $50 billion transportation investment package. He wants to strengthen crumbling national infrastructure while creating the jobs necessary to rebuild roads and bridges.

Conservative public policy advocates, uniquely in Minnesota, resist transportation investments. I guess it goes hand in hand with their belief that any action reducing government spending, thus “starving the beast,” is good. Except, of course, when bridges collapse or the earth opens at 6th & Wabasha and swallows a man whole.

Robust infrastructure is necessary to Minnesota’s prosperity. Not “sort of necessary” or “kind of necessary” but absolutely, unequivocally necessary. Sink holes remind us that infrastructure maintenance is never finished. The downtown St Paul sidewalk collapse is only a taste of things to come if we don’t invest in ourselves.