Infrastructure is one of those things – nobody pays it any attention to it until it fails. People have better things to worry about, so they don’t think about their water pipes, their electricity lines, their building foundations or their roads or bridges, so long as they’re working properly. But when something goes wrong, any of these can suddenly become a top priority.
For this same reason, those who are in charge of infrastructure tend not to prioritize it. If the people don’t care, why should the government? Making a working thing still work is not going to win you as many votes as making a brand new thing. And that’s a logic that’s not reserved for inept governments. Given the choice between paying a professional engineer to do an inspection on that seemingly innocuous crack in a home’s foundation and spending that money on a new big-screen TV, which do you think is going to be the more common choice?
Lessons from NASA
(Feel free to skip this section if you know what STS-51-L and the Rogers Commission are)
When I hear about major infrastructure failures, like the de la Concorde overpass collapse in 2006, I think about the Space Shuttle.
The Space Shuttle was an extremely complex system, requiring thousands of highly educated experts to work together to make it a success. But of all those engineers, scientists, programmers, administrators and other staff, it’s just those handful of people who actually board the shuttle for a trip into space that really attract the public’s attention. And for every mission, it’s only those few days spent actually executing it that people notice (if even that).
On a cold day in January 1986, all those experts worked hard to send one of those space shuttles into orbit. Like a scene from a movie, the flight director asks department heads if they’re prepared for launch, and if everyone agrees, gives the “go for launch”, which can be revoked right up until liftoff. The launch can even be aborted while in progress. There’s a procedure for all that, because those really smart people have pondered every contingency.
Launch delays for the shuttle program were so common as to be routine. Mechanical issues and bad weather were the most common reasons (there are uncommon reasons too). But they’re also very expensive, not to mention how bad they look for the public, even if they understand that safety is paramount.
The launch of STS-51-L was delayed multiple times, because of bad weather at the launch site, bad weather at emergency landing sites, and mechanical failure. It was six days after its originally scheduled launch that it finally took off from the pad at Kennedy Space Center. And even then it was over the objection of engineers who were worried about the effect the cold might have on a critical component of the external solid rocket booster.
Actually, it wasn’t quite like that. There wasn’t some veteran gray-haired engineer sitting at mission control explaining exactly what would happen, screaming that no one was listening to him and guaranteeing that the shuttle would explode if it lifted off. The conversation actually took place internally within the contractor responsible for the rocket booster. The engineers in charge signed off on the launch despite the concerns. And it’s not too hard to understand the logic. The concern was theoretical. It wasn’t guaranteed that the part would fail, and even if it did, there was a backup.
On Jan. 28, with the weather having warmed up and no remaining reasons for delay, STS-51-L took off. Everything looked fine for 73 seconds, even though the part in question – an O-ring seal around the right solid rocket booster – had indeed failed, along with its backup. By the time anyone noticed something was wrong, the failure led to the solid rocket booster partially detaching, the centre fuel tank disintegrated and the orbiter was torn apart.
What millions on the ground and on television saw was an explosion and clouds of vapor heading in directions they’re not supposed to go. The Space Shuttle Challenger had been destroyed, and its seven astronauts wouldn’t survive. (Their exact cause of death isn’t clear, but they survived the explosion and may have even been conscious as they plummeted to their deaths.)
An inquiry was ordered, and it was thorough. Blame was spread around, particularly among those who dismissed safety concerns because they wanted the launch to proceed. But there was also blame placed on a culture where risks were be minimized because of overconfidence in the safety of the system as a whole. So much redundancy was built in, and minor failures in such a complex vehicle were so common, that concerns about even serious problems were easily dismissed.
The shuttle program was grounded and the next one wouldn’t take off until 32 months later. NASA made sweeping changes as a result of the report, and the disaster is even taught to engineering students as a lesson in what happens when one becomes overconfident in safety. The hope was that, for the shuttle program specifically and for major engineering projects in general, such a mistake would never be allowed to happen again.
And then it did.
The circumstances and cause were radically different for the Columbia disaster on Feb. 1, 2003. It happened on re-entry, not takeoff, and while there were concerns about damage before it began its doomed descent into the atmosphere, nobody really had a clear idea what kind of damage could be caused by a simple piece of foam flying off the external fuel tank.
Still, the conclusion reached after the second fatal accident in the shuttle program was that NASA had not learned its lesson from Challenger. The culture had not sufficiently changed, and safety concerns were being dismissed wen the likelihood of them causing significant trouble was low.
Whenever I hear a politician, a company CEO or anyone else say that safety is their “number one priority” or that they don’t take any chances with safety, I cringe. Because really, safety is not paramount. It’s a risk, one they try to minimize but only so far as their budget can reasonably take them. If it costs too much money to reduce the risk of injury from almost impossible to impossible, they’ll stick with almost impossible, so long as they can do so legally.
And the rest of us are the same. Yes, speed kills, but the vast majority of speeding doesn’t result in death. A driver who goes 120 km/h in a 100 zone is increasing the risks to himself and others around him, but the chances are still pretty low that anything bad is going to happen. You buy your car with airbags and crumple zones because you know that the chances are pretty good that someday something might happen, but on a given day the likelihood is too small to even think about.
It’s called risk management. Nothing can be made 100% safe, so a balance is reached where there’s an acceptable (very low) level of risk that can be achieved economically.
The question, then, becomes where this balance is to be placed. For something where failure is a mere inconvenience (like, say, cable TV), something like 99% or 99.9% is sufficient. People will complain when they get to that 0.1% of the time, but there won’t be any commissions convened to investigate it. For infrastructure where failure can mean fatalities (like in a bridge or tunnel), 99.9% is nowhere near adequate. Even a 99.999% success rate would mean failure for one out of every 100,000, or a couple of cars a day on the Turcot Interchange. It has to be 100%, and it has to be everywhere.
Quebec, you’ve lost me
Before Sunday, I had confidence in Quebec’s infrastructure. You might think that’s ridiculous, with all the news I’ve been exposed to about collapsing overpasses, crumbling bridges and surprise sinkholes under our roads. But things I had seen gave me more hope than fear. When the government shut down one span of the Mercier Bridge, it acted before there was structural failure and before anyone died. When Transport Quebec imposed lane reductions on the Turcot Interchange, it did so as a proactive measure. While Montreal motorists whined that this was all evidence of the government being irresponsible about infrastructure, I took it the opposite way.
But the collapse of a “paralume” at the entrance to the Viger Tunnel on Sunday changed my feeling on the subject. It was entirely subjective, and maybe not entirely rational (it looks increasingly like this was the result of a mistake in repairs to the tunnel’s walls rather than a case of not noticing a badly decayed structure). But as of that moment I couldn’t trust Transport Quebec to keep roads safe.
Transport Minister Sam Hamad isn’t exactly helping matters. When asked point blank by CTV’s Todd van der Heyden whether he’s ultimately responsible for what goes on in his department, Hamad avoided answering the question. To Daybreak’s Mike Finnerty earlier in the day, he compared what happened to a plumber doing a bad job on your house, saying it was the plumber, not the home owner, who would be responsible. Hamad clearly wants to blame anyone but himself for this.
And yet the man who’s responsible for nothing was in charge enough to reassure us that any road that’s open to traffic in Quebec is safe – while standing in front of the proof that his statement was clearly not true.
But I’m not calling for Hamad’s resignation as transport minister. Yes, he’s incredibly bad at media relations, and he can’t take responsibility for his own department. But do we seriously think that the next person Jean Charest appoints to this cabinet post is going to do anything substantially different, other than being a better bullshitter?
And this isn’t just Hamad’s fault. Quebec’s infrastructure problem predates his tenure as transport minister. It predates the Charest Liberal government. In fact, funding for inspections has gone up significantly since the de la Concorde collapse. There’s just far too much infrastructure out there to keep tabs on, even without counting what can happen when someone makes a construction mistake.
Hamad should take responsibility, if not blame, and Quebec needs to seriously look at how it manages its highway infrastructure, through an inquiry if necessary. And inspection reports should be made public. They’ll probably show that there are overpasses, bridges and tunnels all over Quebec that are in a critical state. They’ll probably lead the media and motorists to panic, in some cases unnecessarily. But they’ll also show the full extent of the problem, and what a monumental task it will be to bring it all up to an acceptable level again.
And it’s a monumental task that Quebec will undertake half-assed, if at all. Because Quebecers want huge increases in spending on infrastructure maintenance. We just don’t want to pay for it.
Well, we don’t care THAT much
It’s an unscientific poll, but I don’t think the 1,393 who responded to CTV Montreal’s TalkBack question are too far out of the mainstream. Quebecers want roads and bridges to be safe, but they don’t want to pay tolls or higher taxes to ensure this. They want the money to come out of nowhere. Maybe from education, or health care. Many probably think there’s a few billion in the budgets of the Office québécois de la langue française and Jean Charest’s salary as premier to fix it all up, or that once we eliminate corruption in construction contracts everything will balance out.
But really, just like the government, the transport department, and those engineers at NASA, Quebecers are willing to play the odds. If half a dozen people die once every five years or so because of a major infrastructure failure, that’s an acceptable loss, or at least not so outrageous that they’d consider paying a few cents more for gas or paying a few bucks to cross a bridge every day.
We’ll never admit it, of course. The Ville Marie tunnel collapse didn’t kill anyone, but we’re still all up in arms about it just because it could have. (The fact that this happened in the middle of summer when there isn’t much other news certainly contributes a bit.) Ask any regular Quebecer, and they’ll say there should be no risk, no gambling of anyone’s safety. They’ll say no injury is acceptable.
They’ll say infrastructure safety should be the government’s top priority, no question.
Well, except taxes. And health care, and education, and the economy. Those other “No. 1 priorities” will take up a larger part of everyone’s attention as the months and years go by without a major infrastructure failure. Those millions of extra dollars being shovelled into keeping our roads and bridges even more safe won’t be noticed by motorists, except when they see the traffic cones (which they will no doubt whine about). When the next round of across-the-board budget cuts comes around, the transport department and its team of inspectors won’t be immune, any more than health care and emergency services workers are.
And then, in a few years, when we see the next bridge collapse, the next tunnel cave in or the next sinkhole develop that either kills someone or looks like it could easily have done so, we’ll have this same debate all over again. We’ll all shift the blame around, demanding someone else be held accountable.
We certainly won’t look in the mirror, and realize that we’ve reached a subconscious pact with our government that allows them to roll the dice with our safety. Because despite what we say, our No. 1 priority isn’t infrastructure safety when we enter the voting booth. It’s sovereignty, or the personalities of the party leaders, or health care, or education, or immigration, or whatever big thing has most recently caught our attention.
Like our government, we’ll do a lot of talking about how unacceptable this all is. But when it comes time to put our money where our mouth is, we’ll suddenly become very silent.
P.S. I wonder who inspects the structures that hold up TV reporters so they can get a better backdrop while reporting on the tunnel collapse.