Infrastructure: They’re clear-cutting my back yard, and why I’m okay with that

bucket truckThis week, NIMBY [“not in my back yard”] became LIMBY [“literally in my back yard”] when bucket trucks, backhoes, stump grinders, wood chippers and men in hard hats wielding chainsaws converged on the utility easement behind my house in suburban St. Louis. All week, I’ve been watching them clear-cut what has been, for nearly 40 years, the natural buffer that screened my house from my neighbors—and them from me. The work starts at 8 am, and the noise, accompanied by an intermittent snowfall of sawdust, continues until 4 pm. They’re turning the eastern boundary of my once park-like yard into a bare-earth wasteland.

So, why am I smiling?

What they’re doing is one small part of a giant [$1 billion, I’m told] stormwater/sanitary sewer remediation project. All of the cutting and clearing is prep work for replacing the sanitary sewer line that runs through a creek just inside my property line. Over the years, upstream development and its accompanying impermeable surfaces have sent an increasing volume of water rushing through the creek, transforming the flow from a trickle to a tsunami. The stream bed has transformed from something my kids could jump over on their walk to school into a dangerous, 20-foot-wide gulley.

So—full disclosure—I have a selfish motive to like this project. I’ve hoped for—and lobbied for—enclosing the stormwater creek for years, mostly as a way of correcting the growing safety hazard that the creek has become. But there’s more to my tolerance of the noise, the mess, and the destruction of greenery.

It’s infrastructure.

The project in my back yard is just one small example of a priority that is too often ignored. It’s a lot more fun to use tax money to fund a new sports stadium, while ignoring the hundred-year-old power grid that keeps the lights on during football games. We’d rather give tax credits to a Wal-Mart than fix the aging sewer pipes and water mains running under it. We blithely drive huge, expensive SUV’s over bridges awaiting funding for repairs that never come.

Okay, I admit it: I’m a nerd for infrastructure. As a kid, I didn’t play with trucks or obsess over construction projects. But as an adult, I’ve learned that what lies beneath is just as important as the superficial, cosmetic projects that dominate the physical and political landscape of 21st Century America.

Some people contend that America’s “job creators” are the corporate executives who sit behind desks monitoring the value of their stock options. I disagree. There are thousands of jobs waiting to be created—not in corporate boardrooms, but under our streets, on our bridges and in places like my back yard.