Government Technology
By Wayne Hanson: What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?

A Bridge or Tunnel to Somewhere

August 23, 2011 By

Generation after generation, the idea of a bridge or tunnel across the Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia has been proposed, discussed and mostly dismissed as a fantasy. A bridge would have to cross many miles of open ocean and withstand sea ice that rumbles through the gap, to say nothing of the cold and weather at that latitude.

Even worse, once the bridge or tunnel was built, say the skeptics, there are few roads or resources in that part of Alaska on the American side, or Siberia on the Russian side, so it would be another "bridge to nowhere,"  and a "boondoggle," those most chilling of political epithets reserved for "stupid and expensive" ideas that use public funds and then dribble away to nothing.

But there's something about big projects that awakens excitement within the breast of engineers, builders and visionaries, and goads the critics into a frenzy. The Interstate Highway system of the 1950s, the Panama Canal, the Trans Continental Railroad, putting a man on the moon -- all had their critics and all had tremendous obstacles to overcome in terms of geography, finance, engineering and more. When we take a look back we see these accomplishments as high points of our culture, catalysts of scientific advancement, and engines of our economic growth.

But take a look forward and many see only obstacles. Take for example, California's high-speed rail non-project. Even infused with billions of federal dollars, the thing just doesn't seem to have the ability to get moving. OK, so the economy is recovering ever so slowly, and we've all heard the obstacles: money, land, environmental concerns, boondoggle, boondoggle, "train to nowhere," etc. etc. Other rail projects are also languishing, and even NASA has let its space program expire.

In a time of uncertainty, with a soft economy, high unemployment, and a shrinking stake in world affairs, America must start looking forward again. Looking back at past glories gets Greece nowhere as it teeters on economic collapse. And the glories of ancient Rome -- the marvelous engineering of roads and aqueducts that still surpass those of many countries today -- have crumbled away over the millennia. And while our political leaders grouse about the growing power of China and mock the new cities it is building that as yet lack residents, we continue to exhaust valuable resources on debt service to that country, while our cities deteriorate and squatters move into abandoned houses.

The Russians -- we must now hitch rides with them to get to the International Space Station -- announced yesterday that they are ready to build a tunnel under the Bering Strait to connect Russia and America. They've said that many times before, all the way back to the czars. Americans have also posited the idea from time to time. But this time, who knows?

Somebody is going to do it one of these days. Somebody who can visualize the benefits, deal with the obstacles, round up the finances, create so many solutions that nobody can shoot them down fast enough. And as for obstacles, the Russians are solving one. They are already working on the next link of a rail line that by 2030 will extend 2,360 miles to the northeastern tip of Siberia. China, by the by, is also investing in a rail line across that country, so it too, could be positioned to connect to a link between Asia and North America.

So what good is such a line? It's the economy. Building cities along the lines, development of new ideas, new opportunities, new problems to push against. Ride your motorcycle from New York City to London via Denver, Seattle, Anchorage, Kamchatka, hang a left to Beijing and Shanghai. It wouldn't be easy, but that's part of the deal. Imagine, Chinese and Russian license plates in California, Americans buying a little summer place along the beach on the Sea of Okhotsk. And if global warming really heats up, the property values would skyrocket north of the Arctic Circle. It could happen -- this month, for example, a ship reached the North Pole.

So a project like this could be a real "Bridge to Somewhere." If the Russians actually do it, will we be ready?

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Wayne Hanson is editorial director of Digital Communities. His interest is in the future of communities and the elements necessary to create those places in which we would most want to live and work. What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?