Public Works: Rethinking America’s Transportation Infrastructure

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
It really is almost everything.

Henry Petroski:
Infrastructure is just about everything that makes civilization physically possible, roads, bridges, water supply, sewage removal, dams and so forth. The physical part of civilization is the infrastructure.

Roman Mars:
That’s Henry Petroski.

Henry Petroski:
Well, my name is Henry Petroski. I’m a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University.

Roman Mars:
He’s written a number of books about catastrophic failures in engineering and also one about the history of the toothpick, so he’s one of us. His most recent book is all about infrastructure.

Henry Petroski:
The name of the book is ‘The Road Taken, The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure’.

Roman Mars:
A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed Dr. Petroski about his book and the state of infrastructure in the U.S. The first of many things that I learned that shocked me was that the word infrastructure itself is actually kind of new to English.

Henry Petroski:
What we call infrastructure today used to be called ‘public works’; and in America, public works was probably a familiar term up until the 1980s. But public works became a term closely associated with what was called ‘pork barrel’, which was also considered in a rather pejorative term because it had to do with building things that were considered unnecessary or wasteful.

Roman Mars:
Pork barrel is government spending pushed forward by a Congressperson to solely benefit the people in their home district.

Henry Petroski:
It was associated with politics that was a tit for tat. You vote for my pork, I’ll vote for yours.

Roman Mars:
But the connection between public works and government corruption got even worse than trading votes. It reached its peak in 1973.

Henry Petroski:
There was a major scandal that one of our vice presidents of the United States had to resign, Spiro Agnew, because he basically was taking money for road contracts in his home state of Maryland.

Roman Mars:
So in the 1980s, when shrinking government was becoming all the rage and pork barrel and earmarks were our biggest enemy, after the Soviet of course, the term public works fell out of fashion. So…

Henry Petroski:
Infrastructure became a term that replaced public works generally.

Roman Mars:
But the term was still so new that in the 1980s, the Wall Street Journal put infrastructure within quotation marks. Since infrastructure is the physical part of civilization, it’s hard to generalize which government body or private party is responsible for each individual part of it. So in our conversation, we tended to focus on the big one.

Henry Petroski:
Well, let’s take roads.

Roman Mars:
We tend to think of roads, especially highways, as one of the wonderful things that the federal government does. Well, that’s pretty much wrong.

Henry Petroski:
Roads today in the United States are largely the responsibility of municipalities and states. One of the reasons that it’s complicated like this is that the federal government is not authorized by the Constitution to build roads or bridges or even fixing them up by itself. It has to go through the state.

Roman Mars:
Article 1 Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution states that the federal government can build post roads, meaning routes for the post office to operate effectively, but no other kinds of roads are specified.

Roman Mars:
In fact, in 1817 when a bill was passed by Congress that approved the funding of internal improvements in the country, like roads and canals, it was vetoed by then President James Madison because he felt it was unconstitutional; and he should know because he wrote the Constitution.

Henry Petroski:
The federal government can give awards to the states. It could give grants to the states or municipalities, but it can’t do it itself.

Roman Mars:
But what the feds can do is put a tax on gasoline to raise money for roads, which they then give to the states and cities. This has been the case since the Revenue Act of 1932, which was passed by Herbert Hoover, which raised taxes on pretty much everything.

Henry Petroski:
Presently it’s 18.4 cents per gallon, and that gives the federal government about $30 billion a year to distribute to the states. And that distribution, the federal government exercises some control and enables it to provide some standardization to the roads, which I consider a good thing.

Roman Mars:
Me too. Because you don’t really want to drive from one state to another and find that the roads are completely different.

Henry Petroski:
It was the federal government that brought all the states into unification with the colors of the lines on the roads.

Roman Mars:
Yellow lines divide traffic going different ways. White dashes divide lanes going the same way.

Henry Petroski:
The federal government making the money contingent on following standards is what made that happen.

Roman Mars:
But the $30 billion Federal Highway Trust Fund, which is fed by the national gasoline tax isn’t keeping up with our current needs.

Henry Petroski:
One easy solution, of course, would be to increase the gasoline tax. It hasn’t been increased since 1993, which is quite a while.

Roman Mars:
Because the federal gas tax has been so stagnant, the states take it upon themselves to levy their own state gas taxes and fund their road projects that way. Increasing the federal gas tax is not popular, so politicians have trouble doing it. But even if they could, it isn’t a great solution.

Henry Petroski:
Obviously, if you’re going to depend upon the tax on gasoline per gallon for replenishing the fund, then you have to project how many gallons of gasoline are going to be used and whether that volume of consumption is going to be steady or increase. And generally, we expect things like that to increase with time.

Roman Mars:
Right now, people are driving more electric and hybrid vehicles than ever before. They still use the roads, but they spend less money at the gas pump. So Prius owners may be saving the environment, but they are mooching off our roads. It is so hard to do the right thing. So now there’s a notion to separate the collecting of taxes needed to maintain the road from the consumption of gasoline.

Henry Petroski:
Instead of taxing the fuel that’s used, you tax the mileage that the vehicle travels on state roads regardless of whether it uses fuel or not, and this can be done in a variety of ways. At present, there are a number of pilot programs that are trying this out.

Roman Mars:
There are pilot programs that involve self-reporting the number of miles you drive, but the obvious solution is to have a GPS-based tracking device inside each car, and we’ll see if that goes anywhere. Because if you’re someone who gets freaked out about the constitutionality of the federal government building roads, I’m going to guess that you’re not going to be too keen on the federal government installing a tracking device in your car to see how many miles you drive.

Henry Petroski:
I suspect it will take at least a decade to replace the gas tax entirely, but it will probably come.

Roman Mars:
Infrastructure is all about choices. When a new bridge is proposed, there are countless discussions about whether the bridge should be purely functional and therefore presumably cheaper, or if it should be a signature piece of architecture that attracts international attention. There are cases to be made on either side. I’m a signature man myself. But even mundane features like roads involve choices that reverberate for decades. Most roads today that aren’t interstate roads are made of asphalt.

Henry Petroski:
One of asphalt’s advantages, of course, is that it’s seamless.

Roman Mars:
There is a real pleasure in driving on a new smooth black asphalt road. Plus, asphalt can be laid down quickly, it’s relatively cheap, and it’s easy to patch and repair. The downside is, it’s not especially durable. You actually have to patch and repair it quite a lot. Alternatively, you can build a much more durable concrete road, but concrete doesn’t offer that smooth, seamless ride that asphalt does because physics.

Henry Petroski:
With concrete, we need what are so-called expansion joints. What appear to be cracks, but what are really deliberate lines cut into the concrete to allow it to crack in a controlled way.

Roman Mars:
The cracks are there so that the road doesn’t break into pieces when the concrete contracts and expands due to big fluctuations in temperature.

Henry Petroski:
But the tires of a vehicle going over them make a noise and the vehicle feels it.

Roman Mars:
When you’re driving on a concrete road, it sounds like duh, duh, duh duh, duh duh.

Henry Petroski:
And the ride is not as smooth or as quiet as it can be on well-laid asphalt.

Roman Mars:
In addition, concrete roads are more expensive, they’re more expensive to repair and they take longer, but they aren’t as prone to potholes and can last a lot longer than asphalt roads. So decisions have to be made. Do we go with the cheaper, quicker, easier method and save money now or go with a more expensive, slower and less-pleasing method and hope to save money on repairs and replacement costs over time?

Henry Petroski:
Since so many of these decisions are made in a political context by people who know that they are going to probably move on before the repaving has to be done, we’ll generally opt for the lesser expensive choice, which means asphalt. Asphalt is simply cheaper than concrete, and therein is one of the main reasons that we have so much asphalt in this country.

Roman Mars:
But there is a more radical choice. In Montpelier, Vermont, there is a road called Bliss Road, which was in a terrible state of disrepair for many years. Until finally in 2009, the city decided just to unpaved the road, turn it into a dirt and gravel road. And since then, 27 states have also unpaved some of their roads for this same reason. I wondered if this was a clever solution or just a demoralizing defeat.

Henry Petroski:
I’ve heard about that and it does seem like a pretty clever solution. It’s probably not a very popular solution among the paving contractors, for example. It would depend on the nature of this road. If this is a road that doesn’t have especially heavy traffic, not a lot of heavy truck traffic, it might work from an engineering point of view.

Roman Mars:
When the eastern span of the Bay Bridge was about to open in 2013, they set aside a day for pedestrians to walk the bridge, much like people did in 1883 when the Brooklyn Bridge was opened. I was all set to bring my kids and celebrate this new massive piece of infrastructure. But because of last-minute repairs, the event with canceled and the bridge opened to traffic with much less public involvement in the fanfare, and I really didn’t get a sense that people were all that upset about it. We collectively just don’t have the feeling that infrastructure warrants celebration or a sense of pride like we once did. I asked Dr. Petroski why he thought that is.

Henry Petroski:
Oh, I think we, the electorate, has gotten mentally lazy about the infrastructure like we have about a lot of things. We tend to focus on what’s of immediate concern to us. We might worry more about our driveway than the highway that is nearby. I do think that celebratory events are important and that do help generate that pride and almost responsibility because everybody’s a part of all this, the different things that we vote for and pay for in our taxes and fees. We’re really part owner of all that stuff and we should worry about it as much as we do our neighborhood.

Roman Mars:
What do you think about the idea of reclaiming the term public works to reflect the fact that it is owned by all of us and that it is public?

Henry Petroski:
That’s a good idea. I haven’t given it a great deal of thought, but that would make it more explicit. It’s for the public and by the public, in a way. Infrastructure is such a… what is it Latinate word? That makes it more abstract and removed. So yeah, that’s an interesting idea.

Roman Mars:
Good. Well, I just thought of that.

Henry Petroski:
Oh, good.

Roman Mars:
Excellent. I have a proposal to send out into the world.

  1. Gasoline taxes don’t come close to paying for roads. Roads are actually subsidised from general taxation and borrowing. Meaning in effect that non-users like the elderly, the poor and urban transit-users effectively subsidise drivers. If money were moved from roads to railways and urban transit, it would ease congestion, lower pollution, make travel more affordable and available, and make cities more pleasant places to be. America needs to wean itself off the car-culture that has brought miles of strip malls around every city and turned acres of city centre into highways and carparks. Roman, have you read Jeff Speck’s ‘Walkable City’? Get him on the show!

  2. EG

    Toll? In SE Asia, it’s quite common to use toll to fund maintainence of infrastructures. Something like an E tag can eliminate toll booth and congestion.

  3. Elizabeth Morris Lakes

    Roman Mars! I know you live in CA, but you’ve got to specify which Bay Bridge. There’s the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Both are locally just called the Bay Bridge–but your podcast isn’t local!

  4. Today I took note of the 25 kilometers of near-seamless asphalt on my drive to work – a few metal seams on the overpasses, but it reminded me of a holiday drive at the start of this year, when we drove from Johannesburg to Durban. As you enter Durban on the N3 highway, the road surface changes to concrete, and for some reason they have really gone overboard in the number of expansion joints. At least, I presume that’s what they are… except instead of being perpendicular to the driving direction, they are parallel. If you know about the drowsy drone of the wheels hitting the perpendicular ones, imagine the way that these shifting, curving, lines tax a driver’s eyes. They’re a few centimeters distant, and stretch far ahead. So, yes, to keep drivers awake, I vote for asphalt.

    I am sure you’ve heard of “Solar Freaking Roadways” – not sure what the drive is like on those, but they’d probably change my vote!

  5. Damon Mittleider

    The problem with a tax based on mileage is it will penalize the rural areas. I live in Nebraska. It’s a big state and the entire population is probably the same as Oakland and San Francisco (not the metro area, but the cities proper). It’s pretty common to have to drive 50+ miles just to get to a shopping area.

    1. Well, wouldn’t that mean that you are the ones using the road more?
      I live in Norway, and the answer to everything here are “more toll booths”, which are very annoying.
      I would very much prefer to increase the taxation on fuel rather than have toll booths, and some of that is because it will make things slightly cheaper for those living in rural areas. the mileage on a car increases drastically when doodling around in small city streets compared to the long, clear stretches between towns. And it would tax those who drove the longest, and those who have the cars with the highest consumption. It would sort of be a green tax.
      In Norway we also have to pay a yearly fee for having a registered car, so E-cars and hybrids wouldn’t be subsidized completely by gasoline cars.

  6. Raj

    US transportation requires generous capital venture in light of the fact that huge numbers of the roadways and scaffolds manufactured decades sooner are presently achieving the finish of their normal life expectancy. Throughout the previous couple of decades, the country has profited from speculations from older period through the 1980s. From the 1980s ahead, transportation spending as an offer of US Gross domestic product is stagnated.

  7. Raj

    Now Trumps proposed investment of 1 trillion on infrastructure is still on hang and several of our bridges, roads, dams, parks, waste water needing urgent maintenance and up gradation. The stall for growth due to over-regulated permitting process is a massive, self-inflicted wound on our country, a point to be very well noted. Environmental groups are against trumps administration for giving permitting order hastily ignoring community safeguards to big businesses. But the main aspect is how & when or where the trillion dollar investment would come from as most of the time congress/democrats is against his every plan.

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