Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

To Hell in a Leaky Handbasket

Oh joy. The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority has announced that it's raising its fares next year. Hooray. When it's already one of the most expensive public transportation agencies in the country. I ponder this. I pondered this last night, when my bus was 20 minutes late. I pondered this when it finally arrived, and I saw that the the digital marquee was out of order, requiring the driver to TAPE A SIGN IN THE FRONT WINDOW to tell people what bus it was. I pondered this when I discovered that the bell didn't work, and that commutered actually had to push the back door open to get out.

The MBTA is one of the priciest ways to get around a city in the country, and it's only getting pricier. So...what am I paying for, exactly? It was only a few months ago that they replaced the antiquated swipe-style turnstyles for the card-based gates. And they're still not done installing them. It was only a few WEEKS ago that they installed modern fare-collecting equipment on buses...and they don't work half the time. So...where has my money been going all this time? And why do they want more of it? To buy equipment that actually WORKS? To hire contractors who deliver ON TIME? I had no idea that you had to pay extra for that kind of thing. Foolish, naive me, to expect to get what I pay for.

It's a symptom of a larger problem, as any Boston-area resident can attest. Public transportation agencies in this city are all either corrupt or ineffecient (and I'm not sure which is worse). Boston is, after all, home to the greatest public works debacle in the history of public works. They built the Pyramids faster than they finished the Central Artery Tunnel Project. And considering the Pyramids have been around for over three thousand years, and the Big Dig is springing leaks and collapsing in on itself before they've even finalized construction, I can't help but be depressed. It always makes me sad to see engineering projects fail. What greater measure is there of a civilization than what it builds? The things they create, that service their society, that outlast them when their civilization has long turned to dust? There's a reason that the influence the Romans had on Western Civilization has endured long after their Empire crumbled: they built things. If there ever was a civilization of engineers, Rome was it. Granted, it was also a civilization of conquerors, but people forget: once you were conquered, you got a road, access to legal recourse beyond your local village elder, and free entertainment if you felt like watching two armored muscleheads beat the crap out of each other (and let's be honest; the fact that you could watch such a thing for free back then and nowadays you have to go to Pay-Per-View says something about where human civilization has gone). Sure, if you stepped out of line you'd be crushed mercilessly, but why would you? It's a basic truth of government: if the government's doing its job, the people will be content. And content people don't revolt. As governors, the Romans did what they knew how to do best: they built. Roads. Aqueducts. Sewers. We take things like this for granted some two thousands years on, but back then something as simple as easy access to clean water could mean the difference between prosperity and death. Never underestimate the power of public works. Even in this day and age. ESPECIALLY in this day and age, when the disaster of Hurricane Katrina recently gave us a sobering reminder of just how little it would take to turn a First World country into a Third World one if we're not careful.

If we can judge a civilization by how it treats its public works, then modern American civilization is in big trouble. I'm not sure how we got where we are now. Perhaps there's not one single cause - lack of accountability, greed, impatience - and perhaps there's not an easy solution. But I know that if something isn't done, and soon, civilization will crumble. The lessons the Romans learned are still true today: without roads or sewers, people are just barbarians.

As I sat waiting for the bus, I thought to myself, maybe we should take a cue from the Romans. Maybe if we just started executing incompetent engineers, things would improve.

...just a thought...


Anonymous Portrait in Flesh said...

Well, here's how I see it: Americans don't have an overwhelming drive to build in the sense you're talking about because ours is a society that disposes of a lot of things. We consume more than we create, I guess is what I'm saying. Because it's easier to do, and it's more of an instant gratification. And with a demand for instant gratification, there's naturally pressure to satisfy that demand as quickly as possible. So a few corners may be cut here and there in the race to supply what's so desperately needed 10 minutes ago. Quality? Pah. I got your quantity right here, but remember the first taste is free. But you better hurry, because it's a limited time offer.

Now quit your grumbling and give up your seat to the nice old ladies.

9:49 PM, December 01, 2006  

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