Roadwork ahead – Part 2: ‘Slow’ in the construction zone

360px-CBX_Parkchester_6_jeh[1]In Part 1, discussed at some length is America’s railroad infrastructure. The physical plant, a vast array of tracks, equipment and structures – used mostly to move freight and to a certain degree passengers too, is holding its own. In fact, I can’t remember a time when this infrastructure was in this good of shape. This after the industry was almost moribund in the early-to-mid-1970s. Talk about a comeback, this would be it.

In this, the second of four parts, the conversation switches to roads. Somewhat the worse for wear, there is considerable roadwork ahead.

The big picture

A third of all Americans don’t drive. The 200 million or so Americans, who do, collectively are putting 3-trillion-plus miles yearly on their vehicles’ odometers.

Meanwhile, roadway space for all vehicles to operate on weighs in at four-million-lane-miles strong. Vehicles of all types vie for this space. Some is heavily used, some not so much so and, in some cases, roadway usage is light. Some is likely not used at all.

Getting up to speed

Using one’s own two legs and feet for mobility purposes is obviously limited. Not content with moving by legs and feet alone, humans devised additional ways of getting around. One thing – riding animal-back – led to the next – traveling in open or covered conveyances (carriages, wagons, etc.) – which led to the next – being conveyed in covered conveyances automatically (namely in trains and automobiles, mainly) and so forth and so on down the line.

In facilitating movement, footpaths were forged. This was followed by the horse-drawn (covered and/or uncovered cart and wagon) wagon roads. Hot on the wagon roads’ heels were railroads. And pulling up the rear, if you like, arriving on the scene are the motor vehicle (also known as the horseless carriage) roads (some of the earliest examples of which being plank roads) and highways.

From the Web site of the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and on its “The Interstate is 50” page, a “history” of the interstate is presented.

The AASHTO lays out the interstates’ beginnings this way:

“The Progressive Era of the early 20th Century was a formative period in highway planning and reform and gave rise to the concept of federal-state partnerships for highway building. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 called on the Bureau of Public Roads to study the feasibility of a toll-financed system of three east-west and three north-south super highways.

“In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a National Highway Committee headed by Commissioner of Public Roads Thomas H. MacDonald.”

To this, Ted Balaker and Sam Staley in their book “The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It,” add:

“The interstate highway system emerged because our nation refused to accept degraded mobility. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman provided the early push for the program, and President Eisenhower signaled the official beginning of the interstate system when, on June 29, 1956, he signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act.”1

The rest is, as is often spoken, history.

‘Too big to fail?’

“After centuries of speeding up, we are beginning to slow down,” Balaker and Staley contend.2 “The culprit is that mundane irritant called traffic congestion.”

The two further declare: “The widespread availability of automobiles led to the type of congestion we’re familiar with today. Car congestion started slowly, but it grew increasingly severe the longer our leaders ignored it.”3

The American Society of Civil Engineers in its press release “America’s Infrastructure GPA Inches Up to a D+ on National Report Card,” meanwhile, emphasizes: “Roads saw a slight improvement with a grade of D, yet America’s highways face a 42 percent congestion rate. That congestion costs the economy an estimated $101 billion annually in wasted time and fuel.”

The road ahead?

It should also be understood that after reaching a peak in 2004, Americans are driving less with fewer miles of travel being logged.

So, where to go from here: Should road work being done be more on maintaining – or adding to – what’s already in place? Some of both, perhaps?

At any rate, rehabilitating the part that needs rehabbing will take some doing and the roadwork ahead won’t be cheap. That’s a given.

For more, see “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” from the American Society of Civil Engineers.


  1. Ted Balaker and Sam Staley, “The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It,” 2006, p. 9.
  2. Ibid. p. 4
  3. Ibid. p. 7

– Alan Kandel