Monday, June 17, 2024

The next public infrastructure disaster is only one politician’s whim away

As soon as the report in the New York Times came out about what had caused the Metro Line 12 bridge to collapse with dozens of passengers traveling on the train, I devoured it from beginning to end.

Like everyone, I wanted to know what had happened. And probably much like everyone, I was not surprised with what had been exposed.

In a nutshell, it had been built in a rush, much of the planning for it happening as construction went on (several people who defended the project said that was “perfectly normal”). Many parts of the steel beam underneath the overpass were not welded properly to the concrete and even seemed to be placed somewhat haphazardly.

In addition to this, the wheels of the trains didn’t fit the tracks properly. Adjustments were made, but that fact added to extra wear-and-tear from the beginning, aging it all exponentially. Apparently, the city government had bought Line 12’s trains from the company that had promised to get the cars built and sent to Mexico the quickest.

The overall conclusion was that it had faced problems since its birth.

Many engineers who worked on Line 12 had apparently sent out multiple warnings that several parts of the line were not structurally sound and even claimed that there were sections that received a stamp of regulatory approval almost simultaneously upon their official inspections.

My biggest question is this: who were these mysterious people saying, “Yup! Looks good!” when they’d barely seen it?

While there’s plenty of attention focused on the “Golden Line” now, I fear that we’re not paying enough attention to the other tragedies simply waiting to happen. According to a recent report by the Mexican College of Civil Engineers, 68% of elevated sections of the Metro need attention.

That 68% is not including, of course, the 90 bridges all over Mexico (including eight in my home state of Veracruz!) that are in danger of collapse and the 2,000 or so that are simply in dire need of repair lest they soon join the group of 90.

I know that most Mexicans are generally less risk-averse than my paranoid self is but, still, those are not good odds, and I’m not sure why there aren’t protests about it every single day. According to President López Obrador, people “understand that these things unfortunately happen,” as if there were nothing to be done about it.

Former mayor and now Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard claims that the New York Times was completely unfair in its assessment and did not include important things that he told them in his interview. Really, though, what can be said that would explain and exonerate him of responsibility for a very obviously rushed and shoddily built line?

While it may be true that the maintenance could have been better, to use a quote often thrown around during the 2008 United States presidential elections, “You can put lipstick on a pig,” but the underlying condition will be the same.

There seems to be a habit in Mexico of rushing to build all kinds of things so that politicians can say, “Ta-da! Look what we did for you!” Such is the case, for example, for many social housing units that are practically abandoned all over the country, but especially in the north.

On the outside, they look pretty (or at least did in the beginning): rows of identical dwellings, freshly painted.

But lift the rug for a peek underneath and the reasons for the abandonment become clear: homes much too small for more than one or two people; housing units literally in the middle of nowhere (which means far away from places where people can actually work); insecurity.

So many things seem like they’re built just for show, offered up as proof that those in charge are “getting things done.”

I love Mexico. Obviously, I love Mexico. And while I keep close ties to the U.S., (you never get to stop paying taxes there, after all), I’ve been living here for the past 19 years with no immediate plans to return. My relationship with Mexico is a committed one.

But like all old marriages, there are big and small things that annoy and perplex me. One of the biggest things is the fact that there are so many talented, capable and hardworking people here. So many. There is absolutely no lack of talent and ability in this country in pretty much any area you might think of.

And yet these talented, capable and hardworking people are not usually the ones who get to be in charge of the big important projects. Powerful people at all levels are in charge, and rather than allowing a meritocracy that all free societies dream of claiming, they tend to pass that power to whomever they wish. While my own country is no model of meritocracy either, the general public can at least be fairly sure that bridges aren’t going to collapse onto their heads.

My biggest frustration is that the force of the palanca (literally “lever” — practically meaning a powerful person’s leverage or influence for a specific outcome) always seems to be stronger than the ability to get the actual right person for the job. There are probably many people that would prefer to hire another person based on their qualifications but, again, the most powerful person in any organization is always the one who gets the final say.

And when budgets for big projects get eaten up by graft, as many do, even the most talented people pulled into the fold (and later blamed) can hardly be expected to figure out how to suddenly execute the same projects on half the budget and in half the time.

Again, this is not to criticize an entire country. My frustration lies in the fact that there is no need for it to be this way. There are plenty of people who know how to do things and want to do things properly: they know how much money it will cost, they know how long it will take, they have the knowledge to make sure it gets done properly.

It’s just that they’re not usually the decision-makers.

So, yes, Mr. President, people do “understand that these things happen.” But they also understand that these things don’t have to happen, and getting together to ensure that they don’t anymore will ultimately constitute a true revolution.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, and her Patreon page.

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