When We Don’t Ask The Right Questions….

According to Engineering News Record (yes, I know I read a lot of weird shit–blame this one on my spouse, who subscribes),

A congressionally mandated study is recommending a dramatic increase in current highway spending to launch an ambitious new program to upgrade and modernize the aging, sometimes congested, Interstate Highway System. The report also calls for a hike in the federal gas tax to help pay for the plan.

It’s hard to fault this conclusion; the Interstate Highway System, like most of America’s infrastructure, is in indefensible disrepair. But looking at only one element of an integrated transportation system is like blaming all the dysfunctions of our broken government on Trump, without reference to the broken political system that facilitated his emergence and election. (Yes, we need to “fix” the Presidency by getting rid of the current occupant ASAP, but we also need to address gerrymandering, vote suppression, the Electoral College, the filibuster…)

Transportation, like so much else in our rapidly changing world, is undergoing all sorts of changes. A report that focuses only on highways (and not all highways, at that) without considering the present and future operation of the entire transportation system– air, rail (freight & passenger), state roads, etc.–misses much of the picture.

What sorts of transportation should policies promote? (For that matter, have any policies demonstrated the ability to shift those preferences? How? And which ones?)

What would the evidence tell us if we were asking the  right (systemic) questions? What are the relative costs and benefits of shipping goods via rail versus truck, for example? (Data I’ve seen would suggest that we put more money into rail.) How do different modes of transit affect the environment? Which transportation methods are most energy efficient? What is the return on investment of repairs to highways versus repairs and upgrades to rail and air?

I am definitely not suggesting that we allow our Interstates to fall into further disrepair while we debate our approach to a more rational transportation policy, but America has a tendency to pay for mansions where cabins are all we need, especially when policymakers are hiring private contractors who can be expected to return the favor and support those policymakers when the next election comes around.

When lots of money has been spent on something, there’s a natural incentive to use it. (Ask any woman who bought an expensive dress that she subsequently realizes was a mistake.) It’s human nature to look for reasons justifying the original decisions–and to ignore alternatives that might be more cost-effective , convenient or make more economic sense.

If we want to base policy on sound evidence (which I’m not at all sure we do…),if we want good data gathered from sound research to inform our decision-making, it helps to start by asking the right question.

We desperately need a comprehensive analysis of America’s infrastructure. All of it.


  1. As with so much else in our materialistic society gone mad, policy makers cannot differentiate between “needs” and “wants”.

  2. Wouldn’t we all love to travel the magical way Santa does! When I drive the better maintained segments of our interstate highway system, as a Democrat, I am thankful for the visionary and brilliant legacy of a genuine Republican who paid his dues long before he aspired to public office … General Dwight David Eisenhower. However, my experience on the open road is a small fraction compared to those who make a living driving freight liners nation-wide to deliver material goods. Ask them what states work best with the federal highway system to ensure safety and pleasant thoroughfares. Guess which state has some of the very worst segments. Arkansas and Indiana. Hogs and Hoosiers. All I want for Christmas is a Santa smooth ride without having to dodge fox holes in a combat zone. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

  3. We visited France again this year. Flew into Paris, taxi to a train station, then a train ride south. The French public transportation system was functional, on-time, clean (the train had an attendant who worked through the passenger cars cleaning the lavatories) and affordable. I kept wondering why the US had not committed to such a system at the end of WW II, but the I realized the automotive and petroleum lobbies must have worked very hard to kill any such initiative. It’s really time for the aging infrastructure in congress to be replaced with more modern and functional upgrades. At the state level too.

  4. The report calls for a hike in the federal gas tax. I think it’s a fact that the Koch oligarchy and their fellow oil barons are seeking to remove subsidies for mass transi and electric cars. Other countries are building highways which charge electric car batteries. We cannot ignore the fact we only have a very few decades to keep fossil fuel in the ground. Highway construction must account for this. Otherwise my great-grandchildren, not yet born, won’t need better transit systems.

  5. No one argues with the condition of our local highway system, road repair, general infrastructure maintenance, repair and replacement. As an aside; there has been another manhole “mishap” downtown at Market and Delaware Streets. The downtown “spaghetti bowl” (our local interstate system) brought a belated question to my mind; were any of the displaced residents or businesses offered assistance to relocate or offered tax incentives to be evicted? I ask this because I keep asking this question about assistance for those victims of gentrification here in Indianapolis; currently at 222 South Downy Avenue in Irvington. I am like a pit bull with a bone on this issue and will not let go.

    Regarding the downtown Indianapolis highway system repairs/renovation/replacement…whatever decisions are being made…how extensive will the uprooting of additional residents and businesses be to accomplish whatever end is being sought? We do understand the basis of imminent domain; but is consideration given to the lives of so many being disrupted forever? The I-69 mess comes to mind; Daniels had trouble finding money to start that unnecessary interstate and now it is virtually stopped due to lack of money to complete the work so people’s lives can settle somewhere – like it or not.

    As Theresa said, policy makers cannot differentiate between “needs” or “wants”; Daniels wanted I-69, it was not needed by the majority of residents but there it sits in all its mid-demolition/construction in the southern part of the state and Daniels has moved on to the lofty position of President of Purdue University in the northern part of the state.

    “When We Don’t Ask The Right Questions” is a vital issue; but so is WHO is asking the questions and WHO is being asked?

  6. Country’s whose bridges and roads are crumbling wants to build a useless wall instead.

    It would be simpler to ask who will be profiting from the infrastructure upgrades and will the upgrades consider electric cars and mass transit. If not, don’t even bother.

    Once again, the corporate Democrats blocked the Green New Deal proposed because Exxon told them to. It’s cute when I read pundits calling them “centrists”. Why don’t they just call them corporate owned politicians? Why all the verbal juggling?

    Planning doesn’t work in the United States. It requires long-term vision and coordination. Our country looks at quarterly profits as long-term.

    The people are so oppressed in this country and so powerless, escape via _________ is the only coping mechanism.

    We’ve had an infrastructure bill in Congress for quite some time and it keeps being defeated by the conservative bloc because we don’t have the money. We just gave the richest Americans $1 trillion dollars. We just gave the banking industry $14 trillion and the military can’t account for $21 trillion.

    Yet, our government is profiting off students who had to leverage their future to acquire useless degrees. Any mention of eliminating their debt is considered committing unfair amounts of money on one segment of our society. #Priceless

    Now you know why foreign countries are making deals with the Chinese and Russians.

  7. We are really good at doing half the job, though. Look at Acela, as an example. We built the high speed trains and put them into use. We didn’t build the tracks necessary to move the high speed trains at high speed. Yes, Acela will get you to New York from DC in a couple of hours, if all goes well. If this were anywhere else in the world, the trains would go that distance in just over an hour, and we wouldn’t have to hope that all would go well.

  8. One of the transportation problems began with the tax incentive to not warehouse goods at point of sale. Floor space used for storage in a MIN/MAX stocking environment got too expensive, so….
    Along came the “just-in-time” concept of shipping.

    This concept dictates that goods arrive at point of sale or point of use “just in time” to be used. They come from large, central storage facilities that are also practicing minimum times of storage. These concepts place a very large emphasis on ground-based trucking instead of efficient rail transport. Simply put, it’s cheaper to buy and operate a truck than it is to lay a rail line.

    Anyone traveling the interstate system knows that the endless stream of semi-tractor/trailer trucks is both ugly and dangerous. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, the trucking industry was allowed to put monster trucks on the highways that can exceed the weight limitations that the roadways were intended to carry. The high volume of very heavy trucks is the major contributor to the destruction of highways and bridges. They pound any small flaw into major potholes in days.

    Who wins? Everybody in the oil/gas industries, the trucking industries and the retailers. They buyers pay lower than expected prices for merchandise, but then there is the taxation issues to keep the infrastructure intact. Since the infrastructure expense is very unappealing to most voters, they ignore it and just keep bitching about the condition of the roads, or, as Todd keeps reminding us, the “corporate Democrats”.

    While the taxpayers eagerly pay for sexy hardware like aircraft carriers, tanks and jet fighters, the massive infrastructure our industrial might has built for itself is crumbling daily for neglect. The wall thing is political theater writ stupid, but having a bridge collapse on the way to grandma’s house has real meaning to those expecting to be safe in their own country.

    As long as Republicans exist, there will be NO effort to repair the infrastructure for safe and economical travel by the individual. When trucks filled with goods start crashing or falling off the highways, then, perhaps the somnolent voter will wake up to the fact that Republicanism is a self-defeating and nation destroying entity.

  9. The trains in Europe are SO modern, clean, and well maintained. Some even travel 200 mph and deliver you right downtown without the hassles of airports ad uncomfortable planes.

    The point is that our transportation systems and much of the rest of our infrastructure is in bad need of attention. The federal government paid nearly all of the costs of interstate construction and gave that huge gift to the states which were supposed to maintain these speedy new highways with road signs big enough to read, no stop lights, and greatly increased safety. In Indiana, we’ve had trouble keeping up our end of the bargain to care for that huge gift. To whom much is given, much (or at least some) is expected.

  10. The question is. What questions should we be asking? What are the right questions?

    Here are some questions. How can a country as large as ours create mass transit systems that respect the interdependent web of the earth? How do we motivate the oil and energy industries to create alternate transportation that reduces global warming? Are there materials we can use for roads that are more durable and also cost effective? Elon Musk is experimenting with a high speed tunnel in Ca. Is that feasible?

    I sometimes wonder what would have happened had Eisenhower supported mass transit systems instead of automobiles. America is a country of extreme individualism. Hence, I want my own car, preferably with all the bells and whistles. I don’t want to share my traveling with others.

    Also, who exactly, improves and/or repairs our roads? How many of them are in prison and work for next to nothing?

  11. Vernon @ 9:27 am “While the taxpayers eagerly pay for sexy hardware like aircraft carriers, tanks and jet fighters, the massive infrastructure our industrial might has built for itself is crumbling daily for neglect.

    I would disagree about taxpayers eagerly paying for the War Machine. We seem to have no choice, I cannot recall the last time a politician up for election or re-election has said Pentagon spending is out of control. Rather these elected officials and wannabes constantly praise the Warrior Cult, even Professional Sports has to have their over the top Nationalistic extravaganzas.

    US military spending in 2017 was $610 billion—nearly 3 times as much as China’s military spending, which was the second highest in 2017 at $228 billion. US military spending is larger than the next 7 biggest military spenders combined. US defense spending is now over $700 Billion.

    Europe when I traveled there back in the early 1970’s including the UK had a complete transportation system. You had rail integrated with city buses. Given that Europe has to import oil , it made sense to have mass transportation. We had this type of horizontal land integration in the USA at one time. However, we were relatively oil independent until OPEC reminded us in the late 1970’s we were not.

    A part of the problem here is politically higher taxes especially on oil products are the proverbially third rail.

  12. Planning was the essential ingredient of the federal government that made the Interstate Highway System what it is today, essential, functional, a great investment. Today thanks to our inept electorate we don’t even know what the problem is that we are trying to solve because we don’t know what personal transportation to accommodate. One thing that I personally guarantee is that it won’t be at all like today.

    What scares me is even if we weren’t facing as big a transportation transition as cars were we seem unable to get it right. Just maintaining what we have seems beyond those that we and Putin chose to run things.

    So like most problems this one starts with what we have to do which is become a responsible electorate deciding among alternatives pitched to us by competent, concerned, responsible politicians. 2020 is just around the corner and as this year was the secret is unity based on getting the big things as correct as possible by ignoring the little things. We must accept that if we can’t do that we will get stuck again with the loser choices of losers.

    Not a very appropriate introduction to the main message today which is have a Merry Christmas no matter what you call it.

  13. Before we do a comprehensive analysis of our infrastructure, we need to do an analysis of the forces that have led to urban sprawl. Urban sprawl has created great distances between residential and commercial sectors, unsustainable growth, and an auto-dependent society.
    Any municipal or regional planner can explain the pitfalls of building larger, faster transportation systems (of any type) on the environment and the communities they are intended to serve.

    But that begs the question which always troubles me when I reach this point in thinking this through. How much government, largely central, planning do we want in our lives?

    And any comprehensive analysis of transportation or system of urban planning must include value laden premises. How are those values determined and by whom?

  14. Years ago, someone I knew worked at a state lab where paving materials used by private companies under low bid contract to the state were tested to see if they met specs. Those materials often failed to meet specs but were rarely called to account according to this person. He suspected that bribes/kickbacks were involved but at a level that was invisible to the public.

    The debacle that has resulted from the private contract to build the I69 extension by an international company with no experience building an interstate meant years of delay and higher overall costs, losses to small businesses affected by continued construction detours and access closures and great frustration by those who have no alternative to use.

    The state has divested unused rail routes as greenways and trails which are wonderful luxuries for those with the ability and wealth to use them regularly. Even if we wanted to use those routes that still exist for mass transit, NIMBY and the automotive lobby would be sure to fight them with all their power. Auto workers would view any move to mass transit as a threat to their already endangered jobs without thought to the construction and maintenance of the road beds, rail lines and cars needed to run high speed rail and other mass transportation infrastructure all over the country.

    We continue to buy into our supposed superior economic philosophy, viewing any other than our way as inferior or worse, socialism. Ironic that the social contract we have used for decades to provide goods and services for the collective good, paid for by that same collective, are not viewed as socialist.

    As more and more of our countries assets are held by fewer and fewer corporations and oligarchs, we slide further and further toward authoritarian dependency. IMO, it will take a major disruption of the status quo to correct the course of the current train wreck (pun intended).

  15. One of the “externalities” built into the advent of our interstate highway system is that it worked nicely at the time but did not account for the great increase in population and commerce since the 1950s/1960s served by land-based businesses today. That was then and this is now, and there is the possibility that improvements made in the infrastructure today will be to a system that itself becomes obsolete given new modes of transportation of goods, services and people. However, we can’t just sit here and watch our failure to improve our infrastructure make us non-competitors in global commerce. I have noted elsewhere that even China has bullet trains while we talk about them. Cheap labor is thus not China’s only resource in competing in world markets.
    I was once chosen as a special judge to hear a case where a plaintiff was challenging Indiana’s condemnation statute involving the building of the interstate highway system on the west side of Indianapolis (I think I-74). (Yes, I’m old.) After an all-day hearing I ruled in favor of upholding the statute, a holding later affirmed unanimously by the Indiana Supreme Court. It was clear to me that the “taking” was justified since it was clearly for “a public purpose,” though there has been a New Hampshire case since that allowed such “taking” of private property for a non-public use, i.e., the “taking” of a private residence for the building of a business enterprise which would yield more taxes to the municipality (hence the supposed “public” connection). I think that case wrongly decided and that it puts everyone’s home up for grabs for very questionable “public purposes” – unless mere making of more tax money can be defined as a “public purpose.” I fear that this places money over (King’s Way) common law and later statutory standards of condemnation for public purpose. Ah, but I wander this Christmas Eve. Have a Merry One, everybody!

  16. When someone comes up with a way to improve infrastructure without raising taxes, Republicans will climb on board. Governor Nikki Haley of SC told businesses like Michelin, BMW and Boeing to get lost when they pleaded for infrastructure improvements. If it cost her a vote, she would not relent. She didn’t, and is now a serious candidate for the presidency in 2020. Her model is a shining example to all earnest Republicans who look to their worst decisions to guide them into the future.

    Trump could have become a viable politician if he viewed infrastructure the way Eisenhower did. Instead he relied on the Haley approach and decided he would push an infrastructure bill if enough private money could be found to make him look good. It couldn’t.

    As the most vital and least glamorous part of our economy, infrastructure will always wait in the queue behind expenditures like Boy Bush’s decision to spend $3 trillion to get revenge on Saddam Hussein for plotting against his father. $716 billion for defense against an unidentifiable enemy? This is not a budget, but a war obsession. Emptying our treasury to kill people who won’t let us have our way has become a national pastime.

  17. ML,

    Well, who elects and keeps those slavering fools who keep feeding the MIC? Jobs, jobs, jobs. Remember. The slavering fools have now put government/military jobs in virtually every Congressional district in the nation. Who would campaign against those jobs?

    There are better materials for roadways: RECYCLED PLASTIC WASTE and CRUSHED AND FLATTENED OLD CARS AND TRUCKS. Lay the roadbeds with the flattened cars, then surface them with the re-cycled plastics. It’s been done, and the plastic roadways out-perform “traditional” surfaces significantly enough to amortize their original expense through lower maintenance. This is yet another potential industry waiting for discovery. Oh, and the same process, basically, that makes plastic road surfaces may also be used to make building blocks and plastic walls for building new homes and buildings. Surfaces can be painted with substances that prevent the outgassing of potentially harmful gasses like butyrates.

  18. Once found a rail timetable from 1905. From my small East Central Indiana city 19 passenger trains a day could carry you, vis local or express, ten miles away or to the Yukon it tip of Patagonia! Interurban from all points in Indiana. Downtown an hour each way. Railway Express delivered purchases within 12 hours. When I was with INDOT I asked the question: Why was the name changed from ” State Highway Department” to ” Indiana Department of Transportation” if we were still just about highways? We were better off a century ago. I just as soon never to need a car.

  19. And the legal system appears not to have caught up with progress in any area; including infrastructure progress and changing usage at the expense of private citizens who are displaced and increased taxes we have no say in what the taxes are used for. Education is a biggie here; were any questions even asked of those whose children were being educated and shuffled around via busing. I can answer that one; I attended the two meetings regarding busing. The first one was at Arlington High School where we were met by fully armed IPD Swat Teams. I don’t remember many questions being asked. The second meeting at Howe High School gave us the decisions which had been made; we were allowed to ask questions but the answers were set in stone. I argued with the City attorney, Mr. Sawyers, at that one. The charter schools and voucher students are not provided with public education transportation and the public school busing system for years, as attested to by Superintendent Eugene White, was the cheapest they could find. The streets and roads leading to the interstates and highways are part of the failing infrastructure; the part we travel daily to and from work and shopping areas. The already increased taxes to specifically improve these routes show little, if any, improvement. For those who do have the “right questions”; are they getting any “right answers”?

  20. I’d only add one point: The improvements needed cannot be exclusively done with taxes on gas and diesel fuel. Though electric cars may occasionally stumble in the upward trajectory of % of cars powered by it, they are the future, so the planners should plan for that. AND, the legislatures and Federal Gov’t should plan for that too, and a fair way of making for owners pay their ‘fuel taxes’ must be figured out.

  21. There is simply too much profit in building highways compared to other means of transportation. And that profit finds its way back to our representatives. We are in a vicious cycle.

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