News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Future Of U.S. Infrastructure


Traffic is, of course, a huge drain of drivers' time. And it turns out it's also a drain on our wallets, as traffic costs American about $121 billion per year in wasted productivity and inefficient fuel usage. That's according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

At least some of the rush-hour madness can be attributed to poor infrastructure: potholes, crumbling highways, bridges on the verge of collapse.  

Wednesday on "Think," Krys Boyd spoke with historian and civil engineer Henry Petroski of Duke University - he's the author of "The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure." He said that early road design was basically just “trial and error,” during a discussion about the past and future of America’s 4 million miles of roads.

The roads of old

Traffic jams predate cars, and in the 1910s, things got really bad. A man named William Phelps Eno began studying them, searching for patterns to help commuters. He eventually created the “right side unless passing” rule and published a manual on rules of the road. Many of these rules still stand today.

The middle stripe is pretty much ubiquitous now, but in the early 20th century, it was cutting-edge. There was a lot of confusion around curves, causing a number of collisions. Petroski says a man in Michigan - whose name is lost to history - first painted a line down the center of the road. Now the stripe is governed by federal guidelines.

Paying the price

State taxes on gasoline are usually higher than the federal government rate. However, the revenue from the gas tax isn’t keeping up with the costs of roads, because people are buying less gas than they used to. While it seems like more people have cars than ever before, the cars are also more efficient, and governments are touting the benefits of electric and hybrid cars.  

States are “scrambling,” Petroski said, to keep up because, ultimately, they own roads. While the federal government can dole out money and make guidelines, it isn’t authorized by the constitution to build the roads itself.

‘It will never be fixed forever’

With time and inflation, costs of maintaining infrastructure are bound to go up. Is it worthwhile to continue patching infrastructure rather than replacing and repairing it?

“One of the things about infrastructure is that it will never be fixed forever,” Petroski says. “Every component of the infrastructure is going to have a lifetime, whether it's 50 years for a bridge or 20 years for a road that’s paved, we’re going to have to repeat those expenditures. The only way to get ahead of this is to do it right the first time and recognize that it’s not a one-time expenditure, but a first installment. Any responsible budget has to include maintenance. These are the realities. People don’t live forever; we shouldn’t expect our infrastructure to live forever either.”

Listen to the full conversation on “Think” to hear Petroski’s alternatives to the gas tax for paying for infrastructure maintenance.