CRF Blog

The Long and Crumbling Road

by Bill Hayes

In The Long and Crumbling Road for the New Republic, Tom Vanderbilt reviews The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure by Henry Petroski.

“We tend to be oblivious to much of our infrastructure, even when it is in plain sight, until something goes wrong with it,” Petroski writes in The Road Taken. The engineering profession itself, he notes, has not been immune from this tendency. The American Society of Civil Engineers, the group that issues a report card for America’s infrastructure every four years, did not include “levees” as a category until 2009, four years after Hurricane Katrina, when they received an aggregate D-minus. (The United States, Petroski writes, is like a “poor student” who never learns his lessons.) Infrastructure in America seems to be the perennial barn door that’s closed after the horses have gone. We are hardly alone; substantive flood-control projects in the Netherlands and England only got going after disastrous floods in the middle part of the twentieth century. But there may be, Petroski hints, something in the American character, the impromptu pragmatism of a settler nation, that emphasizes the quick fix, what one historian called “the self-fulfilling perception that rapid innovation would quickly render current designs obsolete.” And given the wider societal lack of interest in infrastructure, small wonder there should be little political capital to be had in pushing for costly repairs or expanded maintenance. Today, politicians might be glad to show up and grab golden shovels for a bright new project, but pushing through tax increases for bridge inspections — or to guard against some vaguely predicted future event — does not make for good optics. [more]