The recent New York Times article “The Struggle to Mend America’s Rural Roads” used Wisconsin as a microcosm for the infrastructure crisis that either directly or indirectly affects all Americans.
(There was supposed to be a hastily called roundtable meeting about the situation last week, but the roundtable bounced out of Bob’s truck and was last seen rolling through a flock of sheep on its way to a watery grave in Simpson’s Swamp.)
Personally, I’m tickled with the job the county road department does with my own stretch of country road. But for people in many states and localities, broken axles, wrecked suspension systems, busted tires, emergency road closings and unpredictable weight limits for aging bridges are an ever-looming danger. Shoppers, commuters, tourists, farmers and truckers hauling the nation’s food supply are all at the mercy of substandard rural roads.
The normal life span of an asphalt road is 30 years, but many rural roads have been in service for more than 75 years. (“Wow! Since the time of Plymouth Rock!” Okay, history teachers need more money, too.)
Unfortunately, road construction and maintenance do not come cheap. Reconstructing a mile of road costs $300,000; even chip sealing (a kind of short-term patching) costs $17,000 a mile. Some officeholders are better at keeping costs down than others. (“I’m the county mayor, and I brought a big stack of COUPONS to negotiate with! And I just turned 62. What kind of senior discounts on asphalt have you been hiding up your sleeve?”)
All federal, state and local agencies must make hard decisions about finite resources, but some places are less ashamed of their stinginess than others. (“Yes, we are a proud POTHOLE SANCTUARY STATE.”)
Many urbanites - unable to see past their subways and other forms of mass transit - demonstrate a dismaying lack of empathy for fellow Americans who live in “flyover country.” (“I didn’t FORCE them to live in the boonies. Granted, I’ve tried to force them to stop exploiting the vultures who eat roadkill, but I didn’t force them to live in the boonies.”)
Yes, many people treat rural drivers like second-class citizens. But as Shakespeare’s Shylock observed, “If you prick me, do I not bleed? If I meet you on a narrow road and you force me too far over against the crumbling shoulder, do I not plunge to a fiery death?”)
To be sure, open-minded city-dwellers can visit the hinterlands and really “click” with the locals and their needs. Their hearts are in the right place. (Or maybe their hearts have shifted to the LOWER INTESTINE REGION after hitting one bump too many.)
But even the most sympathetic visitors know that whatever state or federal funding might materialize, the answer must start with the people directly affected. And locals can be reluctant to disrupt the status quo by opening their wallets wider. As John Denver sang, “Country roads, take me home - unless there’s a big tax bill waiting in the mailbox!”
Still, I hope the Times article will reignite a long-stalled national discussion of the seen and unseen costs of deteriorating infrastructure. People from all regions, all income levels, all political persuasions must put their petty differences aside, roll up their sleeves and brainstorm solutions.
As Prof. Emmett Brown from “Back to the Future” might have said, “Bipartisanship? Where we’re going, we don’t need bipartisanship! KA-THUMP KA-THUMP CRASH! AIIIIEEEEE!”
Danny Tyree welcomes email responses at firstname.lastname@example.org.