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Web Extra: A book that teaches how to think about what we never think about

“The Road Taken:The History and Future Of America’s Infrastructure”

By Henry Petroski


322 pages, $28

By Michael D. Langan

Here’s a quiz for us: I’m taking it at the same time, without having dipped into Henry Petroski’s book yet.

Question: “What does historian and engineer Henry Petroski say about our physical infrastructure in the United States in ‘The Road Taken’”?

My answer: Our infrastructure’s a mess. Probably 20 percent of our bridges and other conveyances are ready to fall down. Our water and gas infrastructure is precarious.

I’d guess that what I’ve just written is pretty much what most people would say if they scan the news.

Now let’s see what Petroski, Professor of Civil Engineering and of History at Duke University says. Petroski has written 18 books, including “To Engineer is Human.”

Petroski, a New York City native who grew up in Brooklyn, lived in Queens and went to college in the Bronx, writes, “Physical infrastructure in the United States is crumbling. The American Society of Civil Engineers has, in its latest report, given American roads and bridges a grade of D and C +, respectively, and has described roughly sixty-five thousand bridges in the United States as ‘structurally deficient.’ ”

If you’re like me, you figure that the only time politicians and government officials look at infrastructure and try to fix it, is when a plane falls out of the sky or a bridge like the I-35W collapses in Minnesota.

In Petroski’s book, “The Road Taken”, the author explores our core physical entities from historical and contemporary perspectives and explains how essential their maintenance is to America’s economic health.

Do we need a book to tell us this? It looks like the answer is “yes.” This is a compelling work of history written by a guy with a feeling for the humanities and the grit of a practical engineer. (Where did people like him go?)

If we could become unglued from Facebook and other self-aggrandizing ephemera, the lesson of paying attention to something other than ourselves might sink in. If not, the road taken in the next decade will have us all driving into swamp land and off crumbling bridges while we take one more I-phone snap of our own demise.

Robert Frost’s 1916 poem, “The Road Not Taken” begins “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both.” The title of this book is derivative of that verse.

The author uses it as a touchstone throughout his chapters of historical background of how our decaying infrastructure has come to be as it is. We are now at a “tipping point” about funding to fix, or not. Frost’s biographer Lawrance Thompson wrote that the poem’s narrator was “one who habitually wastes energy in regretting any choice made: belatedly but wistfully he sighs over the attractive alternative rejected.”

In this case, rebuilding America’s infrastructure was never considered an “attractive alternative” that was rejected. Re-doing roads and bridges properly was rarely “sighed over” as not being accomplished. Instead, dodgy politicians were too busy spending your money in less observable places, like on their own districts’ boondoggles. Once in a while, this might include a road or a bridge. That’s the way politics works, or doesn’t work, really. Criticizing the cravenness of this approach so totally lacking in equity will make most folks, now thoroughly used to being bamboozled, say “What’s wrong with that?”

(The longest serving U.S. Senator, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Byrd served in the Senate from 1959 until his death in 2010. You can hardly cross a road or buy a hamburger in West Virginia without his name on it.)

Alternately, this book “is a compelling work of history that is also an urgent clarion call aimed at American citizens, politicians, and anyone with a vested interest in our economic well-being.”

“The Road Taken” informs us about things we should be glad to know. For example, Petroski reveals “the genesis of our interstate numbering system (even roads go east-west, odd go north-south,) the inspiration behind the center line that has divided roads for decades (an ideal conceived of by Edward N. Hines, who is said to have observed a milk wagon leaking some of its contents and leaving a white strike behind it as it progressed down the road), and such taken-for-granted objects as guardrails, stop signs, and traffic lights – all crucial parts of our national and local infrastructure.”

The most practical aspect of this book is that it enables citizens to develop an approach to become knowledgeable about worn-out elevateds, subways, streets, bumps, potholes, sidewalks, curbs, gutters, fuel taxes, parks, and other neighborhood problems your eyes have been averting.

Next time you walk down the block, or what’s left of it, you’ll be more sensitive to the importance of giving your representative, local or state-wide senator a call when you see a hole in the street.

In the past, some government officials did better than others in appearing to be interested in local problems. Former Sen. Al D’Amato wasn’t called “Senator Pot Hole” for nothing. He concentrated on getting local things done and making sure the press knew about it. That gave him greater prominence to achieve more extensive objectives. (A footnote: Petroski tells us that “Self-healing concrete made from Portland cement is on the horizon.)

New York City Mayor Ed Koch spent three terms asking people, “How am I doin’”? Did Koch really want to know after he got “biffed-up” a bit by people telling him he wasn’t doing very well and where he could go. But Koch was a tough New York guy. He did his best at the job of being mayor, becoming a little like everybody’s dotty uncle in the end.

This book is your entry into revitalizing where you live by bringing politicians to task. The alarm is great according to the author: “If America’s highway infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate much below its current state, the cost of maintaining it in a condition no worse than it is now could be overwhelming.”

Petroski ends on a hopeful note, more than, by saying that “the lessons of the past can help us better comprehend how we can put it (infrastructure) back together.”

Michael D. Langan has worked for several Washington Departments and one congressman and is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.