Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Reconsidering the varying faces of infrastructure and their sometimes competing imperatives 2: adding in a second case study example

Posted in business and convergent technologies, strategy and planning, UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on June 19, 2018

This is my second installment to a series on infrastructure as work on it, and as possible work on it are variously prioritized and carried through upon, or set aside for future consideration (see Part 1.)

I began this series in Part 1 with a negative example of how this type of need and response system can play out, as drawn from recent events on the island of Puerto Rico. That example centered on how that island was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, and how this disaster and its impact on the island’s critical infrastructure was addressed. More specifically there, I wrote of the failure of the United States government to bring their Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its emergency response capabilities to bear on this problem at anything like a significant level of action. And I wrote of the US governmental decision as made by President Trump, to in effect abandon Puerto Rico and its people in the face of this disaster. Puerto Ricans are American citizens; and they have been facing a fundamental need for what amounts to comprehensive critical infrastructure rebuilding in the face of what they have gone through from this storm: the worst historically to have ever hit their island and with records going back centuries now for that, to the time of the early Spanish explorers. And Puerto Rico and its people have been officially and formally left to their fate by this failure to follow through, and in the face of both longstanding American tradition and in the face of FEMA’s basic charter as a government agency.

I stress here that that charter mandates that this agency spearhead national government-led responses to disasters, and that it has in fact stepped forth to do that on numerous other occasions and for other American communities. But this time, President Trump visited the site of devastation to proclaim that any help from his government would be limited and of very short duration, and with nothing else to be expected. That “and with nothing else” has come to include a lack of any federal coordination or support in any longer term recovery effort too. And what effort has been mounted there has been plagued by corruption in how recovery and reconstruction contracts have been doled out, and inefficiency, and by what can only be called large-scale theft of funds that were to go towards this effort where funds have been allocated for it.

• This disaster still continues and for many as I write this, with many on the island still without electrical power to their homes or businesses, and over half a year after the hurricane first hit.

This is a series about infrastructure and its priorities, and politics. I began it with an overtly toxic example of how need and even pressing need, and political ideology and personal political ambition do not always align and in either a functional, or a moral or ethical sense. I picked a very real example to start this series with, that is still painfully playing out as I write this second installment. And it is one that I am sorry to say will likely still be playing out: dragging on, and for as long as I write to this series and beyond. And this still in the news story, is one that highlights how need and justification for action and commitment, and an idealized presumption of how infrastructure development and maintenance should be carried out, do not necessarily hold true in the real, politically charged and politically governed world that we live in.

I finished my discussion of that case study as far as I went with it in Part 1, by offering a somewhat cryptic comment as to one of the consequences of all of this, that I said I would explain and clarify here:

• “The impact that this failure to lead or to act (n.b. in addressing Puerto Rico’s problems), have had significant repercussions in the continental United States too. In anticipation of that, I note here that ongoing and unresolved damage to Puerto Rico and its infrastructure and its businesses, have had repercussions that reach into virtually every hospital in the United States.”

That assertion calls for clarification. And I begin offering that clarification with some ideologically grounded background points that can be found in President Trump’s tweets and in his more lengthy public statements and actions. Trump likes to proclaim that all Mexicans are “thieves and rapists” (though “some of them might be nice people”), to cite a parallel example of his disdain for Hispanics of all sorts. And he likes to say in justification of his decisions and actions in this disaster’s context, that Puerto Rican’s are all indolent and lazy and that they just live off of handouts and welfare from the US government. But Puerto Rico has come to play a significant, and even crucial role in the overall US economy too, and in some very specific areas of its production and manufacturing systems. Pertinently to the above repeated consequences bullet point and as an example of the island’s critical role in American manufacturing, essentially all of the intravenous hydration fluids used at essentially every hospital and clinic in the continental United States were produced by businesses located in Puerto Rico. These are vitally important healthcare resources for treating a very wide range of hospital and clinic patients, and for a very wide range of conditions and in meeting a great many types of patient needs. And those businesses were heavily damaged by Hurricane Maria, and were left without electrical power after that. They still have not recovered and a real, full recovery for them might take years if it is to happen at all. Meanwhile, US hospitals have found themselves rationing the IV fluids that they can acquire from alternative sources, and prioritizing what necessary medical care they can afford to offer that calls for this type of resource, with the more limited supplies they still have. This affects people who have to be able to receive medications that have to be delivered intravenously and with supporting IV hydration, and hospitalized patients who cannot take fluids orally among others, and impacts on the healthcare of many in need.

• When critical infrastructure systems are maintained and even improved to accommodate advancing need, this positively affects individuals and communities and even entire nations. And the ripple effects that spread out from that type of development effort through indirect benefits accrued, can be just as profound as the direct impact of this work being done where it is.
• And a failure to so act, has consequences that are at least as impactful and that can be just as far reaching – just in a different direction.

I said in Part 1 that I would turn to consider a second case study example, after concluding my at least initial take here on what has been happening and not happening in Puerto Rico. And I begin that with the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and its convoluted City versus State politics – and the impact that the tug of war resulting from that ownership conflict have had on this crucial transportation infrastructure system and on its reliability and safety.

I began addressing this complex of issues at the end of Part 1 in my brief anticipatory note as to what I would discuss here. But I begin fleshing out that brief opening note here with some relevant background material that I offer in order to more clearly indicate what is involved in this example. The most recent ridership numbers that I have access to from the MTA itself indicate that as of the end of 2016:

• An average of 5,655,755 rides were taken on this subway system every weekday,
• And average of 5,758,201 rides were taken on it every two day weekend, and
• A total of 1,756,814,800 rides were taken on this subway system for that year as a whole.

This makes the New York City MTA the seventh most heavily used subway system in the world, by ridership numbers (see this MTA facts sheet.) And to share another scale metric, this subway system as of this writing, now includes in it more than 665 mainline miles of track that run along 22 interconnected route lines, along with several permanent shuttle lines added in to more effectively interconnect this system, each with their miles of track too. This system currently includes 472 stations in operation (with a total of 424 if stations connected by transfer walk-throughs are counted as single stations), located throughout the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx and with a line running along the Hudson River-facing coast of Staten Island too. The NYC MTA is the largest metropolitan subway system in the world and significantly so, when scale is determined on the basis of numbers of subway stations included. And New York City would basically grind to a halt if this system were to significantly go down and for any significant period of time. The NYC MTA is very genuinely an example of a crucially important, vital critical infrastructure system.

I stress here that this is the New York City metropolitan subway system that I write of here, managed and run by a government agency that has Metropolitan in its title. And this was a City agency and the management and maintenance of it was under City government control and oversight – until that is, the State government moved in to take what effectively amounts to control over the MTA. Why and how did this happen?

I have already at least started to address that dual question at the end of Part 1, in anticipation of this installment, and for continuity of narrative repeat what I said of this there. Then governor Nelson Rockefeller imposed a layer of state control over the city’s MTA and its decision making authority in 1968, in order to garner more votes for his own reelection bid of that year. He saw his polling numbers to be weak in the New York City metropolitan area and decided that if he stepped in and blocked a planned, and I have to add needed five cent fare increase in the cost of a ride on the subway, he would garner more votes from appreciative New Yorkers (see Why Does New York State Control the Subway? That’s the 20-Cent Question.) So Rockefeller stepped in with the help and support of the state legislature in Albany that would suddenly gain veto level control over the New York City MTA and its budget and its planning, and comprehensively for that: not just control over fares charged in that system.

• And yes, Rockefeller did win his reelection bid, so this political gambit did at least seem to work for him. But this change of controlling authority was of open-ended duration, and it still holds as a defining fact for the MTA and for New York City as a whole for its ongoing consequences: 30 years later and with no end to that in sight.

I am going to continue this narrative in a next series installment, where I will at least briefly and selectively discuss how Albany politics, and New York City subway system priorities as set by Upstate politicians who never themselves ride on this subway system, are skewed to put that politely and how their priorities and their resulting decisions fail when compared to actual need faced. So, for example, even when a subway station is being rebuilt as a major redevelopment initiative that is approved by Albany, it is rare that any effort be made to comply with the US Federal government’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in that. As a result, most of the subway stations in this system are still not handicapped accessible. And that federal law was passed in 1990, fast approaching 30 years ago too!

I will discuss systems maintenance and how the MTA’s track and signaling systems are in disrepair, and how as a matter of irony the fare for a ride on the subway system has kept going up and up in spite of these and other failures to actually effectively prioritize or maintain this system. And I will at least briefly make note of New York State’s current governor and his political ambitions, bookending the starting point to this example as that began with then Governor Rockefeller and his political ambitions.

After concluding that case study example, I will turn from the negative and the cautionary-note view of infrastructure development and maintenance, to consider the positive side to this. I will discuss the post-World War II European Recovery Program: commonly known as the Marshall Plan. And then I will step back to address the topics and issues of this series in more general terms. As part of that, I will explore and discuss the questions and issues of what gets supported and worked upon and why in this, and what is set aside in building and maintaining infrastructure systems. I will discuss China’s infrastructure building outreach as a part of that, as that nation seeks to extend and strengthen its position globally. And I will at least touch upon and make note of a variety of other infrastructure development and maintenance examples too.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at Business Strategy and Operations – 5, and also at Page 1, Page 2, Page 3 and Page 4 of that directory. I also include this in Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 3, and also see Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory. And I include this in my United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID) directory too for its relevance there. I begin this series with an American example, but it addresses globally impactful issues and events.

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