Bearing in mind that Planning Photography concerns itself with photography and writing in support of smart-growth planning and sustainable means to that end, the story in this week’s blog is not so much about the U.S.A.’s crumbling highways and bridges but more about how the political process of this country is responsible for a lack of direction we need for a balanced, sustainable transportation matrix in the 21st century.

In Too Big to Fall, America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward, the author presents the political structure, and manifest policies, of the United States responsible for the neglect and deterioration of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, particularly its aging interstate highway and bridge system. The nations’ interstate highway and bridge system, much of which was built from the mid-1950’s to 1970’s, has directly spurred the country’s largest-ever economic expansion by facilitating the movement of people and goods.  Since 1822, when President Monroe vetoed a bill to impose tolls to raise money for the maintenance of the country’s road system, saying that such a bill would be in opposition to the Constitution, a precedent has been established whereby states bear the responsibility for maintaining roads.  The Constitution, as we have learned, was framed to preclude overarching federal authority, which has sometimes led to interstate conflicts, the most glaring of which was the Civil War, but has nevertheless protected the sovereignty of each of the states, more or less.  Still, transportation’s lack of a focused, national leadership has led to the states being unable to share the burden of maintaining roads in what has become a bi-product of an antiquated political process badly in need of updating.

States Saddled with Upkeep of National Highway System

In the first example of federal highway legislation, the 1916 Federal-Aid Highway Act provided federal assistance to states for the improvement of rural post roads, giving the states the responsibility for the building and maintaining of their share of the national system while the federal government set and enforced standards.  In the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921, states began receiving federal funding for half the cost of road building projects with the stipulation they would lose funding if they did not maintain roads.  Yet, the act reiterated Congress’ prohibition on funding states for maintenance.  From the 1920’s through the 1940’s, with the percentage of American’s owning a car rising to 90%, the network of roads expanded exponentially and the states began falling behind in the maintenance of their roads.  From President Monroe’ veto of 1822 to the 1921 Act and through much of the remainder of the 20th Century, it was the states that were saddled with the burden of the upkeep of an increasingly large, aging, and over-used national system. 

Splashy ribbon-cutting projects get more attention than road maintenance

Also, the author discusses the concept of “ribbon-cutting” politics as that which involves our local and state leaders preferring splashy, new bridge construction projects - such as the San Francisco Bay Bridge eastern span set to open later this year – to humdrum, unnoticeable maintenance.  Politicians in this country are elected in rather short cycles, and are reliant on generous campaign contributions from, among other sources, wealthy construction industry companies who stand to benefit from kickback projects because of their contributions.  Combined with loophole-ridden federal funding  meant for urgently needed repairs and maintenance of a vast and aging highway and bridge system  (but often times diverted to new or non-transportation related projects) as well as severe budgetary constraints, the nation’s interstate highway and bridge system, while somewhat improved since new inspection and maintenance procedures began in the late 1990’s, is today in need of over $500 billion worth of repairs, including urgently needed replacements of nearly 8,000 bridges.

Regional and National Coalitions to Restore Transportation Balance

Finally, the concluding yet central message of the book is that in order for the author’s and other experts recommendations for the restoration and modernization of the existing transportation infrastructure to take place, the United States must establish a new and proactive leadership at the federal level in the form of a National Infrastructure Commission that would be charged with oversight that would foster innovation and the righting of transportation imbalances.  The new emphasis would be on regional and national coalitions, instead of state and local, since regions are composed of inter-related cities and towns that tie the whole country together.  This is especially relevant considering the population of the nation will increase by 100,000,000 people by 2040, with whole new towns, many of which will infill future megalopolis’ (such as San Francisco to Sacramento,  and Atlanta to Raleigh).