Review Essay

How to Fix America’s Infrastructure

Build, Baby, Build

In This Review

The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure
The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure
By Henry Petroski
Bloomsbury, 2016, 336 pp. Purchase

Just after 6 PM on August 1, 2007, at the peak of rush hour, 111 vehicles were driving across the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis when a thin metal plate in the bridge’s central span ripped. The bridge collapsed, plunging vehicles and passengers into the river more than 60 feet below. Thirteen people died, and 145 were injured.

This was not an isolated incident. In May 2013, a bridge on the I-5 north of Seattle collapsed, injuring three people, when a truck carrying an oversize load crashed into it. And in February 2015, a chunk of concrete fell from the bottom of the I-495 overpass in Maryland, crush­ing a car.

These incidents should not have come as a surprise: according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, a quarter of the United States’ bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete. Bridges are carrying more traffic, with heavier vehicles, than they were originally designed to handle, and in 2013, the average bridge was 42 years old.

The problem with the United States’ infrastructure is much broader than fail­ing bridges. The nation’s roads are congested and full of potholes. In 2014, the typical urban commuter spent 42 hours stuck in traffic, up from 20 hours in 1984. Americans consumed over three billion gallons of gas as they sat in grid­lock for almost seven billion hours, at a cost of $160 billion in wasted fuel and time.

In March, meanwhile, the entire subway system of Washington, D.C.—the second-largest in the country—was completely shut down for a day for emer­gency safety inspections. The inves­tigation exposed so many problems that officials have warned that they may have to close large parts of the system for as long as six months for repairs.

The root of the crisis is clear: the United States has underinvested in its infrastructure. The federal gas tax is the main source of federal funding for roads, bridges, and subways. But Washington has not increased that tax, of 18.4 cents per gallon, since 1993; in real

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