Henry Petroski, civil engineer and historian, reports on our aging transportation infrastructure: roads, bridges, curbs and gutters and, when provided, sidewalks and bike lanes. He also talks about what he calls the “software” component of that infrastructure, the conventions and rules of the road. We abide by these conventions such as driving on the right side. The signs that remind us of the rules of the road.
Road signs have been standardized. Those that command us to stop are now hexagonal and red. The green light and red light are well-understood if not obeyed. Yellow is cautionary, but not always able to command caution. No parking and speed-limit signs are rectangular and white. The interstate system has its own common signs.
Petroski is most concerned in this book about the transportation system, and he is critical of our governments – national, state, and local – for neglecting other infrastructures and their states of repair. He includes a chart of their periodic evaluation by the American Society of Civil Engineers on a scale of A to F. Bridges get relatively high grades Cs – thank heavens. Roads are mostly Ds. Drinking Water D and D-. Solid waste got Cs mostly, but recently B–. Good! Levees have been graded D– in recent years! So lots of bad grades; the American Society of Civil Engineers has high standards. Good again!
Security concerns are getting much attention at our airports but are not yet part of the ranking system. It would be interesting to learn how other infrastructures vary according to their degree of security from acts of nature or saboteurs. All those pylons strung through the countryside, carrying our electricity; the grade of F?
Back in July 1919 Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower was part of a military convey that traveled across the country to examine first-hand the state of the country’s roads and bridges. That sobering 3,250-mile auto journey may explain the Eisenhower Administration’s creating the Highway Trust Fund in 1956.
In the 1910s and 1920s promoters created various cross-country routes and gave them numbers in an effort to give some order to the hodge-podge of roads. If of continental in length, they were named, or “branded” in today’s terminology. The “Lincoln Highway” (Highway 30) from New York to California crossed through Iowa, just fifteen miles south of my home. The “Old Spanish Trail” ran from St. Augustine to San Diego. The “Woodpecker Trail” passed through Gainesville, Florida on the way south and north. The branding attracted mom-and-pop motels and filling stations. Petroski describes the new roadside ‘color’ along these routes, though they are now mostly abandoned and dismal.
Road terminology has never been settled. Some of us talk about the expressway. Others interstate or freeway. Mostly free, but some are tollways. In some regions where appropriately landscaped they are parkways. There are Avenues, Streets, Lanes, Places, Terraces, Drives, and more. Petroski comments that “Avenue” suggests something grand, even Parisian rather than the two-block road on which he lives.
Bridges. These days bridges are generally given a projected life span. This is partly because bridges face heavier and heavier vehicles and traffic loads. Access roads to the bridges have often wandered through city streets, subject to their own obsolesce. Also bridge builders face an ever-evolving technology of design and construction, making existing bridges obsolete. But then there’s the Eads Bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis. This year is its 142nd anniversary.
Henry Petroski lives in a Brooklyn neighborhood and relies heavily on public transportation to get about. Hence he is much affected by the decision, made in the late nineteenth century, to go underground rather than expand the elevated railroads or “els.” The decision was also made that the subway lines would be constructed by the private sector, though planned and permitted by the city. Undergrounding involved tunnels that mostly followed the surface street layout. Hence the maze-like character of the NYC subway system. Chicago still has its els, and they are rickety.
There has been much discussion at our various levels of government about how our road system should be financed. Should it be by a user tax? Then possibly tolls are best. Petroski prefers a more sophisticated user fee based on how much the vehicle is driven, perhaps using a GPS system. But the tracking necessary might become a privacy issue.
Most funds used in constructing and maintaining our transportation infrastructure have come from a tax on gasoline, a set cents-per-gallon. But because the revenue generated does not change as consumption rises, it has not been keeping up with infrastructure needs. A sales tax on fuel purchases might be better because it would rise with the amount of gas purchased. Electric cars do not pay the gasoline tax, though they use the roads constructed by the tax. Also in general there has been an increase in fuel efficiency. Good, but not good for the Highway Trust Fund.
Clearly we have not resolved the growing problem of how to finance infrastructure maintenance, let alone the improvements necessary for a growing economy.