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Which lasts longer, a 1920s bridge or a 2016 tattoo?

SECOND IN A SERIES


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Want to know why the Sellwood Bridge is being rebuilt? It's because 90 years ago county contractors spent most of their bridge funding on the Burnside and Ross Island bridges, leaving little for reinforcement of the Sellwood Bridge.The Morrison Bridge roadway is being replaced just five years after it was completed, because a new material ended up not as durable as hoped.

Bridges are full of object lessons about durability, says Multnomah County spokesman Mike Pullen, who has become something of an expert on the topic. In the 1920s, he says, Multnomah County passed a bond measure to build three new bridges — Burnside, Ross Island and Sellwood. Ross Island and Burnside were built first and went way over budget, mainly due to the huge amount of steel used to reinforce the bridges.

When it came time to build the Sellwood Bridge, there wasn’t much money left, Pullen says, so less steel was used. Guess which of the three bridges is being replaced 90 years later: Sellwood.

Though it’s little solace to today’s taxpayers, Pullen reports that the contractor responsible for leaving so little for the Sellwood Bridge construction went to jail and three county commissioners were recalled because of the boondoggle.

Some things — beyond cars — last longer than they used to, according to University of Oregon Sustainability Director Steve Mital. “Last time I looked, the quality of tattoos has improved,” Mital says.

It’s true, says Mary Jane Haake, one of Portland’s best-known tattoo artists. Haake has been inking bodies for almost 40 years, and she says the ink used today is more concentrated, purer and more durable. There is one exception, however. Haake says that China has started producing cheap knockoff ink that doesn’t retain its vibrancy well at all.

A tattoo, Mital points out, is beyond an avatar, so it’s no surprise that quality wins out. “Once you have it, you have it for life,” he says.

Mital says many modern bikes are better-made than their predecessors from several decades ago. He’s a bike commuter and his 1991 frame is holding up just fine. And he thinks the YouTube do-it-yourself repair videos that get hundreds of thousands of hits are evidence that people want to keep their appliances rather than simply continue to buy new ones.

But Mital says mostly consumers are at fault for the lack of durability in merchandise today. Thrift, he says, was once considered a major virtue and it no longer is. Domestic labor —the repair person — is expensive. Overseas labor — the person making the appliances — is cheap. People are willing to buy new appliances with new features they may or may not need, so manufacturers supply them.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tattoo artist Mary Jane Haake says ink used today is more concentrated, purer and more durable. China has started producing cheap knockoff ink that doesn't retain its vibrancy well at all.

Built to last

Tara Button isn’t buying into the idea that consumers are at fault for all the junk we buy. In fact, Button isn’t buying much at all these days.

A few years ago, Button, an advertising scriptwriter who lives in London, was given a Le Creuset pot for her birthday. The high-end kitchenware came with a lifetime guarantee and a revelation.

“I thought if everything I owned was like this, I could just take (buying) possessions off my list of things to do,” she says. To say nothing of the money she would save in the long run, or the smaller environmental footprint she would be putting down.

One thing led to another and Button started a website called BuyMeOnce.com, which promotes items such as tweezers with free lifetime sharpening, suitcases with genuine lifetime warranties and even a recent favorite, a New York City maker of a little black dress who will pay your local tailor for any repair the dress needs as long as you own it.

“I think it’s hard for consumers,” Button says. “They’re not given a huge amount of information. If you go into a store and you want to buy a kettle, how do you know which kettle is going to last longer?”

Button has started an online petition that would require manufacturers to certify how long their products will last. As an incentive to manufacturers, she’s thinking a company like hers could offer a stamp or seal of approval on products built to last — which could help them sell more product, much like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval did in decades past.

Planned obsolescence

You won’t find a single dishwasher recommended on the Buy Me Once website. Button can’t find any that qualify. The same goes for other large household appliances.

“It’s a mess,” she says of appliances, including the supposedly high-end brands. “It’s a massive scandal and we should be much angrier about it than we are ... The trouble is they’ve all brought their standards down. It’s a systematic degrading of their products so they last a really short time.”

Button says if a manufacturer were to make a dishwasher with a lifetime guarantee of 25 years, people would buy it even at twice the price of the current models for sale.

“I know. I have the audience. I’ve had a million people come to my website saying this is what we want,” she says.

Pothole-free roads

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Northwest 23rd Avenue has its share of potholes.Ever set foot on the Appian Way? Portland Community College engineering instructor and asphalt expert Todd Sanders has. The Appian Way in Italy is the ancient road the Romans built 2,300 years ago, and its heavy paving stones are still intact in many places.

Guess what those stones don’t have? Potholes. Here we are in the 21st century and we still don’t have asphalt that doesn’t pothole. But we can’t blame the asphalt, Sanders insists.

Today’s asphalt is much longer-lasting than the asphalt of 100 years ago, he says. But the stress on today’s roads, from heavier and more numerous vehicles, takes more of a toll.

“The heaviest thing that was on any road in Italy was the weight of a horse and a cart,” Sanders says.

Ever the engineer, Sanders blames people rather than materials.

“(Potholes) have nothing to do with the road and everything to do with the people on the road,” he says. “Asphalt gets a bad reputation. Millions of miles of asphalt perform perfectly every day. It is when a little 2-square-foot patch fails that everyone gets upset.”

Except there are a lot of those 2-square-foot patches along, say Northwest 23rd Avenue, which has old trolley tracks beneath much of its road bed.

“It’s about return on investment,” Sanders says. “We could invest enough resources and invent a pothole-free surface, but the cost would be so high. It’s just not worth the return on investment ... filling a pothole isn’t that expensive compared to digging up the trolley tracks.”

That’s right, says Portland Bureau of Transportation Senior Engineer Michael Magee. It costs the city about $250,000 and two days to repave one lane of one mile of city street. The expectation is that the street will need new asphalt in five to 10 years. Digging up the entire roadbed to remove old tracks and cobblestone costs $2 million to $4 million per mile of lane.

Digging is what the city did six years ago on the southern half of Northwest 23rd Avenue, and there isn’t money left to dig up the road bed on the heavily potholed remainder of 23rd, between Lovejoy and Thurman Streets, according to city officials.

Magee says the city recently laid down a lane of West Burnside Street near Powell’s Books with an experimental asphalt imbedded with Kevlar fibers that should increase durability. A traditional asphalt lane runs right next to it. Maybe the new asphalt will last much longer and resist potholes.

“We won’t know for years,” Magee says.

COURTESY PHOTO: VOLKERWESSELS - A plastic road that doesn't have potholes? It's an idea being tested in Europe.

Plastic roads

Even though he’s an asphalt apologist, Sanders admits he’s excited about a new product from the Netherlands that promises pothole-free streets. It’s a supposedly maintenance-free plastic road that’s hollow beneath the surface, so water gets whisked away and utility lines and cables can easily be snaked where they need to go without the road being torn up — a feature Sanders calls “brilliant.”

Alas, Sanders says the new plastic road will need to undergo about a decade of testing before it can be rolled out for general use. Any cities that try to use the product before it has proven its durability on test roads, according to Sanders, could regret jumping the gun.

“Like the Morrison Bridge,” he says.