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Public Works vs. Infrastructure

By September 26, 2016September 29th, 2016No Comments

What’s in a word? Does calling our pavement “infrastructure” instead of “public works” in anyway help fix our potholes? Or is it the other way around?

In his recent book, “The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure,” Duke University engineering professor Henry Petroski discusses (among many things) common misconceptions about the sources of funds for road construction and maintenance. Where it comes to our nation’s roads, bridges and other components of the physical makeup of civilization, it isn’t always clear what level of government – city, state or federal – pays for road building and road maintenance.

Petroski explores the broad history of road building in the U.S., going back to when the framers of the Constitution explicitly prohibited the federal government from road building except to provide for “postal roads,” ceding the bulk of responsibility to states and cities. Battles around this ensued in Washington decades before cars were even invented.

Where words seemed to matter – when we replaced “public works” with “infrastructure” – is when the former became associated with pork barrel politics. Quite famously, it is why U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned his position in 1973 over kickbacks from engineering firms he hired to build roads when he was the governor of Maryland.

Petroski says that by the 1980s “public works” had become a pejorative term such that we sought something else. The word “infrastructure” rose to common usage even though it basically meant the same thing. Describing the result of something, the structure of our transportation system, certainly helps taxpayers see what they get for their money, right?

In the podcast “99% Invisible,” host Roman Mars interviews Petroski, discovering why asphalt ultimately is a more practical road-building material as compared to concrete. Also discussed is why fixing things is less glorious for politicians who ultimately fund roads and bridges than ribbon cutting photo opportunities with new highways and spans – which might skew what gets funded in the first place.

Regarding the nomenclature of roads and bridges, Mars and Petroski speculate that a public sense of ownership might have been lost when the term public works was dropped. Maybe people would be more inclined to feel “that highway” is “my highway,” and that perhaps they would be more willing to pay for new construction as well as maintenance of the older pavement. (For more on this, read articles about gas taxes and options here.)

Public works today might sound more like an antiquated term on a Monopoly game board than a way to keep traffic moving. But if those words had the power to win more attention from politicians and voters, to ultimately allocate a sufficient amount of money to fix potholes, perhaps it’s worth revisiting and reviving.

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