U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on infrastructure in the United States with the Tappan Zee Bridge and construction for a new bridge as a backdrop at the Washington Irving Boat Club on May 14, 2014 in Tarrytown, New York.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on infrastructure in the United States with the Tappan Zee Bridge and construction for a new bridge as a backdrop at the Washington Irving Boat Club on May 14, 2014 in Tarrytown, New York.

America’s transportation infrastructure is crumbling. The scorecards for our roads and bridges have been dire over decades. This puts our country’s economic health in grave danger, according to civil engineer and historian Henry Petroski. In a new book, he highlights the challenges involved in making and funding infrastructure decisions, from major undertakings like our interstates, to small details like the fonts of our road signs…and explains why it’s not only up to Washington to point us in the right direction, but also states and individuals. The history and future of America’s infrastructure, and an urgent call to action.


  • Henry Petroski Professor, civil engineering and history, Duke University; author, “To Engineer is Human: the Role of Failure in Successful Design”, "The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems", and “The Pencil: a History of Design and Circumstance”


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. We tend not to notice the infrastructure around us until something goes wrong. A bridge collapses, a train derails or we find ourselves in traffic on badly clogged highways. But engineer and historian, Henry Petroski, says it's time to get serious about making change to our transportation structure, in part, because our country's economic health depends on it.

  • 11:07:28

    MS. DIANE REHMHis new book is titled "The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure." Henry Petroski joins me in the studio. As always, you are welcome to be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. It's good to see you again, sir.

  • 11:07:58

    MR. HENRY PETROSKIWell, it's good to see you, Diane.

  • 11:08:00

    REHMThank you. First of all, talk about how you see the state of America's infrastructure.

  • 11:08:11

    PETROSKIWell, I think the state of the infrastructure is poor, really, or at best, mediocre, depending on definitions, really. The American Society of Civil Engineers, of which I should reveal I am a member, rates the infrastructure, grades if formerly with a report card every four years and their latest report card, which was issued in 2013, gave the overall infrastructure of about a D, if I recall correctly.

  • 11:08:43

    REHMAnd on what do they base those grades?

  • 11:08:47

    PETROSKIWell, they base those grades on the condition of roads, bridges, airports, waterways, solid waste disposal, just about everything we would think of that is in the public domain. The fact of the matter is that they think it would take $3.6 trillion, if I recall correctly, of an investment through the year 2020, that would be over about seven years, to bring it up to acceptable standards, which would, you know, be about a C. Now, that really is a shame. Anecdotally, I drive up 95 regularly between North Carolina and Maine, for example.

  • 11:09:42

    PETROSKIGenerally speaking, most parts of that are in pretty good shape, but there are sections of it that are poor. There are sections of roads that approach it and, you know, depart from it that are extremely poor. I happened to be in Europe last summer driving a fair amount and I was amazed at how the infrastructure is much better. Again, it's anecdotal...

  • 11:10:05


  • 11:10:07

    PETROSKI...because -- but I did see a lot of roadwork. And a lot of roadwork that I saw in Europe seemed to be doing it correctly by most engineers' standards. In that...

  • 11:10:18

    REHMAll right. And before we get to correctly or not correctly, tell me how civil engineers come to that grade of D for the U.S. How much of the landscape do they actually investigate?

  • 11:10:40

    PETROSKIWell, they have committees, sub committees, and there are different categories. My book concentrates on roads and bridges so I'll speak to those specifically. For roads, I believe they give it a D and for bridges, I think they give it a C plus, if my memory is correct. So these committee members assess the condition by taking surveys, for example, of state department of transportation people, but also looking not only at the condition of the roads in terms of potholes or no potholes, but also in terms of the congestion or no congestion.

  • 11:11:15

    PETROSKIAnd as anybody who's travelled on the roads around Washington, D.C. knows...

  • 11:11:20

    PETROSKIEspecially 95.

  • 11:11:21

    PETROSKI...congestion is a big deal. So that brings the grade down, actually. So even though our roads might be in reasonable shape around the area here, if they're congested, that brings the assessment of them toward the C and D range.

  • 11:11:37

    REHMThe thesis of your book is really the relationship between the infrastructure of our country and economics. Explain that.

  • 11:11:54

    PETROSKIWell, while waiting to appear on the show, I was sitting looking out on Connecticut Avenue here in Washington, D.C. and I just informally took a survey, counting how many vehicles were obviously business-related. And that would mean trucks, principally, that have a sign on the side declaring what their associated with and my estimate was about 20 and sometimes as high as 30 percent of the vehicles passing here are business-related.

  • 11:12:25

    PETROSKINow, what are they doing? To generalize, business-relation vehicles are bringing raw materials to factories. They're taking goods that have been manufactured at those factories and distributing them. They may be making repairs locally. They're providing services. If our roads are in bad shape, well, let's say they just have a lot of potholes, well then, those trucks will need service more regularly and that's expensive so that would be a cost of doing business so that would impact on the profit of the business and therefore on the economy.

  • 11:13:02

    PETROSKIEven if the roads are in very good shape, as I've indicated, if they're congested, then deliveries are slowed. That has to be factored in. The driver has to be paid for time that the driver's not really being productive really. So all of these things, relating to the infrastructure go into affecting the economy. The airplanes are very often filled with a lot of business people. Business people are flying here and there for meetings and if the airports are not functioning efficiently, those people are not being productive in their time spent.

  • 11:13:42

    PETROSKISo there is an interrelationship and this has always been recognized.

  • 11:13:47

    REHMSo, actually, pardon me, as you're watching Connecticut Avenue today, today happens to be a holiday here in Washington so you saw really a minimal amount of traffic than that which is usually on Connecticut Avenue during the day.

  • 11:14:13

    PETROSKIYes, I appreciated that.

  • 11:14:14


  • 11:14:14

    PETROSKII was thinking about that. That made it easier to count.

  • 11:14:17

    REHMYeah, of course. And what about bridges? Bridges, too, must involve a great deal of economic burden.

  • 11:14:29

    PETROSKIYes. Well, certainly. Bridges are just extensions of roads and very often the bridges are the pinch points on roads that if a bridge is weak, that can limit the weight of a truck that can use it, for example. There was a case up in Maine, the Waldo-Hancock Bridge, it was a suspension bridge. About 10 years ago, it was discovered to be deteriorating at a rate faster than expected. It had to be limited, the weight of trucks that could cross it. That meant that those trucks had to detour about 60 miles out of their way on roads that didn't have a high speed limit so it could be of the order of two hours that a truck driver would have to go all the way up the Penobscot River and then down again, just to get across the river where the bridge was located.

  • 11:15:15

    REHMAnd think about that bridge in Minneapolis that simple went down.

  • 11:15:22

    PETROSKIYes. Well, that's an excellent example. There's a bridge that stood for, what, 40 or 50 years and it was not suspected, generally, although it should've been, because it was inspected and in that case, it appears that the inspection was not done properly in that it didn't catch the weaknesses that were signs that the bridge was in danger of collapsing.

  • 11:15:43

    REHMI think an awful lot of people are going to dwell on that last statement you've made because one has to wonder how much of bridge failure could simply be human oversight or human lack of paying attention to details that were important.

  • 11:16:10

    PETROSKIWell, that's right. Human interaction, human oversight, human involvement is key. We really rely on human involvement throughout the infrastructure, throughout our whole political process and for everything that's involved in our engagement as citizens, really. So that is a very important point and it's also not a new issue. One of the things I wanted to achieve in this book was to look back and see if these are truly new factors that, you know, oh, well, they used to do it the right way or -- in the good old days.

  • 11:16:48

    PETROSKIWell, the good old days, there was an awful lot of corruption. There was an awful lot of incompetence. So what we have today is more or less a continuation of what was. It's not something new. And, in fact, you know, when somebody's charged with inspecting a bridge that's so key to the infrastructure of, say, a city like Minneapolis, that person can -- and I'm not going to judge whether rightly or wrongly, but that person can be under pressure because that person can realize that if he gives the bridge a bad grade, that could close the bridge and certain people don't want that kind of responsibility.

  • 11:17:26

    PETROSKIThey shouldn't be in that position, of course, if they don’t want that kind of responsibility.

  • 11:17:31

    REHMOr pointing out the deficiency in the bridge would mean the expenditure of a lot of money.

  • 11:17:42

    PETROSKIYes, that's right. Yes, ultimately, it is a money factor.

  • 11:17:47

    REHMHenry Petroski, his new book titled "The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure." Short break here. Your calls, your comments when we come back. Stay with us.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMWelcome back. Henry Petroski is with me. He is the author of the brand new book, "The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure. Henry, we've gotten a number of emails questioning the refusal of Congress to raise gas taxes for money for infrastructure. How do you see both the history of that and that going forward?

  • 11:20:37

    PETROSKIWell, the history of it is that Congress has been reluctant to raise taxes generally and, in particular, the gasoline tax because it's such a visible thing. And, of course, now that the gas price is so low, most people would be able to tolerate a reasonable increase.

  • 11:20:56

    REHMIt would be a good time to do it.

  • 11:20:58

    PETROSKIIt would. But it's a presidential election year is the explanation of why they're not doing it. Well, nevertheless, that's an important topic. The federal -- the money that we pay in gas taxes, that goes into what's called a Highway Trust Fund. And it's dedicated to roads and bridges, which makes sense. The gasoline that we're buying, we're using for driving cars and trucks across those roads and bridges.

  • 11:21:24

    PETROSKINow, there have been some interesting surprises. There has been a promotion of electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, more efficient -- fuel efficient cars. Of course, those use less gasoline. Hence, less revenue at the gas pump. And this has created a problem for the so-called Highway Trust Fund, which needs about $50 billion a year by current standards. And I think the revenue is only in the $30 to $40 billion range. So in recent years, it's had to be supplemented by the federal government. So why they didn't raise the taxes to make up that -- the current rate, which is 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline, has not changed since 1993, I believe it is, even though we've had some inflation and what was a penny then doesn't buy what a penny does today.

  • 11:22:18

    REHMHere's an email from Tucker, who say, as a millennial, my vote for president is heavily influenced by a candidate who values the progression of smart infrastructure to enter the 21st century. He goes on to say, Bernie Sanders pledges a $1 trillion investment for infrastructure and creating jobs. Separate those two things, infrastructure and creating jobs.

  • 11:22:58

    PETROSKIWell, part of the argument is that if we invest in infrastructure -- meaning fixing roads, building new bridges, let's say, paving another lane on a heavily-used highway -- that obviously takes people to do it, therefore, it's jobs. But it's not clear how long those jobs would last. Because projects, by their very nature, are not permanent. So those would be...

  • 11:23:23

    REHMBut don't we have enough projects to last for many years?

  • 11:23:29

    PETROSKIWell, theoretically, we do, actually. That's correct. Because, for example, if you pave a road with asphalt and you bring it up to, you know, wonderful standards -- that, depending on the use of that road, how heavily it's traveled and so forth, it might need to be repaved in 10, 15, 20 years, whatever. Bridges are designed with a lifetime in mind. Fifty years is -- used to be a standard for a typical highway bridge. It's going to last for 50 years. Well, obviously, at the end of 50 years, it has to be replaced.

  • 11:24:00

    PETROSKIThe federal government generally doesn't think in terms of 50-year durations however. So it becomes a little complicated to do the calculations.

  • 11:24:09

    REHMTo do the calculation, I see.

  • 11:24:11

    PETROSKIAnd to pledge a trillion dollars, you have to drill-down to find out exactly what that means. Does that mean for a year? Does that mean over 10 years? Does that mean over an administration? They're obviously different. And as I indicated earlier, the American Society of Civil Engineers would like to see $3.6 trillion over seven years.

  • 11:24:34

    REHMAnd do you believe that that $3.6 trillion over seven years would really deal with all the problems in infrastructure apparent now?

  • 11:24:52

    PETROSKIProbably, it could. It probably could, if those that have been identified now are in fact real problems. One of the difficulties with the infrastructure, if we really, you know, start getting down to dimes and dollars, is that there's a lot of money spent that isn't needed now or that is fraudulently spent.

  • 11:25:21

    REHMSuch as?

  • 11:25:22

    PETROSKISuch as, contracts, for example, are -- you get a favorable treatment if you're a contractor -- let's say, you're a big contractor and you say you're going to partner with a minority-owned business. You will get that contract over somebody that isn't. Now, that's good and it's well intended. And it should work to everybody's advantage.

  • 11:25:46


  • 11:25:47

    PETROSKIBut it's exploited. And there are examples and they've been adjudicated. These are not theoretical cases.

  • 11:25:54

    REHMGive me an example.

  • 11:25:55

    PETROSKIAn example, the contractor with billion -- excuse me -- millions of dollars -- tens of millions of dollars in paving contracts, said that he was partnering with a minority-owned business. His evidence was that the -- he had magnetic signs of the minority-owned business on his trucks. And he was producing fraudulent invoices from the minority-owned business and paying them to an account that was really his own account, ultimately. So that's an example. And, you know, it's on...

  • 11:26:32

    REHMI mean, are there many examples like that?

  • 11:26:36

    PETROSKII think more than we would probably like to admit. And this is nothing new, either. There was a book written in 1940 called "Magic Highways." And it was connected with the General Motors Futurama exhibit at the World's Fair -- that 1939 World's Fair. And the statement made in that book was that we spend twice as much money on highways than what we get out of them, meaning that we were paying basically a 50 percent graft and corruption premium. And that's been also exhibited in cases where a new road's going to go through some place the land values get artificially inflated.

  • 11:27:20

    REHMLet's talk about the Eisenhower Era and the construction of roadways during that period. How significant was that? Are they primarily the roads now that need rebuilding?

  • 11:27:39

    PETROSKIWell, the Eisenhower -- Eisenhower is generally credited with the Interstate Highway System, of course. And he does deserve some credit. Back in 1919, Eisenhower was a young lieutenant colonel in the Army and he participated in a transcontinental highway convoy to demonstrate that the Army could get from New York -- or from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco and show its readiness. It took them 60 days. The roads were in terrible shape then. In many cases, there weren't bridges where we needed them and so forth. So when Eisenhower did get to the Oval Office, he was inclined to support an Interstate Highway System.

  • 11:28:19

    PETROSKIIt wasn't his original idea. President Roosevelt had an idea for Inter-Regional Highway System. And it was -- it's time had come. The question was, how are you going to pay for it? And Eisenhower had a lot to do with that. Basically, the federal government was telling the states that they'd pay of the order of 90 percent of the cost of building the Interstate Highway System, obviously a very tempting proposition.

  • 11:28:43

    REHMNow, here's an email from Sergio. Does Mr. Petroski think President Eisenhower should have promoted an Interstate Railroad System instead of the Highway System, given how much more fuel-efficient transporting freight and people by rail is than by road?

  • 11:29:11

    PETROSKIWell, I think it could be argued that we did already have an Interstate Railroad System. That, you know, was something that had been established with the Trans-Continental Railroad. In fact, that was the beginning of an Interstate Railroad System. So that was not the problem. Railroads were all over the country. It was the growth in automobiles and trucks and especially the post-war boom that everybody wanted to drive that focused the attention on the highways. It was not so much an either-or than that was not the motivation of Eisenhower.

  • 11:29:48

    REHMAnd who was doing the designing of those highways back then in the Eisenhower Era, compared to who's designing those highways now?

  • 11:30:03

    PETROSKIWell, the design of the highways actually started before the Eisenhower Era. I see Eisenhower's main contribution as the funding of them rather than the design of them. Now, it is the Federal Department of Transportation, through this Highway Trust Fund, doles out money to usually state and local-regional projects.

  • 11:30:28

    PETROSKIIn order to get that federal money, however, you have to conform to federal standards. Now, that's a good thing. If we drive across a state line, the Interstate signage doesn't change, the road doesn't appreciably change in its geometrical curvature and so forth. So we feel like we're on pretty much the same road. And that's what it should be from a driver's point of view. So the federal government is serving a good purpose in that regard.

  • 11:30:55

    PETROSKIThe amount of money the federal government is contributing to road construction is of the order of 25 percent. And that's through the Department of Transportation, in particular the Federal Highway Administration. Those are the -- officially, the federal government cannot own roads. And they -- it's really the states that have the right -- and this comes down to a Constitutional issue. If you read the Constitution, it authorizes the federal government to designate post roads, which meant for the delivery of mail, basically. But not -- there's no authorization for the Interstate Highway System in the federal government.

  • 11:31:37


  • 11:31:38

    PETROSKIBut they can pay for it, of course. And that's not going outside the Constitutional authorization.

  • 11:31:43

    REHMNow, all around the country you see signs that say, this highway is -- owes itself to, and then there's a name. So what have you got? Individuals now contributing to repair, development of particular streets and highways?

  • 11:32:10

    PETROSKIWell, the streets are usually controlled by local municipalities, the highways by state departments of transportation. And the -- they are usually under, you know, your state legislatures, you know, have oversight to them. And there could be a bill passed in a state legislator -- legislation -- legislature that names something.

  • 11:32:33

    REHMAllows for that kind of thing.

  • 11:32:35

    PETROSKIYeah. I think most engineers don't pay much attention to that. That's part of being government.

  • 11:32:43

    REHMI guess, Henry, the real question is, do you expect a big disaster to occur anytime soon?

  • 11:32:54

    PETROSKIWell, one of my technical fields of expertise, as it's called, is failure and, in particular, the collapse of bridges. Historically, I've studied this subject from a historical perspective and followed it from a contemporary perspective. And if we look at the historical record, there's no reason to believe that there will not be another Minneapolis, let's say. There just is too much historical evidence. And there's no sign that people have changed, that the, you know, oversight of highways has changed. So, yes, I would expect one.

  • 11:33:35

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Are there areas of the country where you think that's more likely than not?

  • 11:33:47

    PETROSKII'd say, no, for the following reason. That many and almost -- I'd say most cases, these major collapses are total surprises. They're contrary to the conventional wisdom. That bridge in Minneapolis, nobody expected that to come from such a sophisticated state as Minneapolis -- or, excuse me, as Minnesota, for example. So, no. I don't think we can draw that conclusion.

  • 11:34:19

    REHMYou can't generalize about any part...

  • 11:34:21

    PETROSKINo, I don't think we can generalize, no.

  • 11:34:22

    REHM...of the country. But are there bridges, simply by virtue of the inspections that have gone on, that seem more vulnerable now?

  • 11:34:40

    PETROSKINot necessarily. Because a case like the Minneapolis collapse has revealed the weaknesses in the inspection system. There was a case back in 1967 of a bridge that collapsed over the Ohio River. And that was also traced to, not poor inspection, but poor design that made it very difficult to inspect the bridge. We learn from those lessons. And in that '67 case, for example, in the wake of that, it was required that every bridge be inspected at least every two years. So accidents, collapses, failures, have a silver lining, if you will, that we do things in the wake of them that we didn't think were necessary before the accident occurred.

  • 11:35:31

    REHMAre the older bridges -- that is, the ones built, say, you know, 75, 100 years ago -- more vulnerable simply by virtue of age? Or was construction back then different from what it has been more recently?

  • 11:35:57

    PETROSKIWell, yes and no. A 75-year-old bridge definitely, you know, has been -- taken on a lot of abuse and has aged in the design. Today, it wouldn't be designed the same way. A lot of those bridges are slated for replacement. That's just normal routine for a state department of transportation. So those bridges are not that likely to be a problem. Because even though they're not in danger of collapsing, they're rated for replacement and in many cases that's happening.

  • 11:36:31

    PETROSKISouth Carolina, Charleston, replaced two old bridges that, you know, were serving, but not serving well, they weren't wide enough, for example. That's what is referred to as a functional obsolescence. And those kinds of bridges are slated for replacement. Sometimes it's the newest bridges, the most technically advanced, you might say, that are the bigger danger.

  • 11:37:00


  • 11:37:01

    PETROSKIWell, because we're going into territory that we're not familiar with by definition, it's new. And engineers who tend to be involved with such projects tend to be engineers who have very good reputations and are pushing the envelope. And they're given their ahead because of their experience, because that's what they are noted for.

  • 11:37:22

    REHMHenry Petroski, his new book is titled "The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure." Short break. We'll be right back.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. Henry Petroski is with me. We're talking about his new book titled, "The Road Taken." Talk about that title.

  • 11:40:15

    PETROSKIWell, it's -- Robert Frost has a poem, "The Road Not Taken," in which a visitor -- a walker is going through the woods and comes to a fork. And the poem reflects years later about, what if he had taken the other fork? The poem is very evocative. And I have used the poem to introduce the problem of infrastructure indecisions. And "The Road Taken" alludes to the fact that we have made the choice. We've gone down a certain road. And now we're faced with certain decisions to be made. We can't go back to the fork because we can't undo a decision -- a major decision.

  • 11:40:59

    PETROSKII use words from Frost's poem as chapter titles to evoke the poem throughout the book.

  • 11:41:07

    REHMHere's an email from Nick in Arlington, Mich. He says, have you considered that perhaps the U.S. has too much public infrastructure and that we cannot afford to maintain it all? If drivers are unwilling to pay higher fees and gas taxes, perhaps it's a sign the system is overbuilt.

  • 11:41:37

    PETROSKIWell, I don't know that drivers are not -- unwilling to pay higher taxes. I think, in fact, if you really look at the tax rate card on a gas pump, the federal taxes are 18.4 percent. Many, many states impose a state tax which is higher by factors of two and three. So it's not the federal tax that is the real burden, it's in many case, the state taxes that are the bigger burden. As far as having too much infrastructure, well, you know, you could say it's a question of supply and demand.

  • 11:42:13

    PETROSKIAnd whether we need as many roads as we do, at the moment, when a road gets congested, very often, if the state is in control of that road, they'll ask on a ballot measure, should we build another lane or should we build another road? They'll ask it in the form of a bond measure. And if the people vote for it, it gets passed and it gets built.

  • 11:42:37

    REHMTell me, also about the highway funds that do come into states. Are they strictly apportioned for highway and bridge repair?

  • 11:42:54

    PETROSKIYes. The Highway Trust Fund is specifically for highways. There...

  • 11:42:59

    REHMBut what about states?

  • 11:43:02

    PETROSKIWell, the states, some of them have their own highway trust funds. Some of them intermingle it with the general fund. That's a controversial issue that you have to look at state by state, case by case.

  • 11:43:14

    REHMBecause sometimes not all those funds are used for that very purpose.

  • 11:43:22

    PETROSKIThat's correct.

  • 11:43:23

    REHMAnd that's too bad. Let's go to Brad in Venice, Fla. You're on the air.

  • 11:43:33

    BRADGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:43:34


  • 11:43:34

    BRADFirst, I want to thank you for your wonderful programs, and do that from many of my friends and I that find your balanced programs to be very informative.

  • 11:43:44

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:43:44

    BRADAnd today, with your guest, is a perfect example of having very qualified people to help educate us. My question is that I was under the impression that during President Obama's tenure, he has attempted to get some infrastructure work done and that it didn't get through Congress. If your guest could talk about that, please.

  • 11:44:10

    PETROSKIWell, I'm not sure exactly what legislation you're referring to. When President Obama first was in office, he did have a lot of shovel-ready projects that were attributed to him, a lot of stimulus money, as it was called. Unfortunately, so much of that money didn't go for infrastructure. It went for things other than infrastructure. I can't recall the exact numbers right now. But the -- it was of the order of 10, 20 percent maybe of the stimulus money went to infrastructure.

  • 11:44:49

    REHMInteresting. All right, to Joe in Dallas, Texas. You're on the air.

  • 11:44:56

    JOEHi, Diane. What an honor.

  • 11:44:58


  • 11:44:58

    JOEI have one question regarding the finances for the roads. With more electric vehicles on the roads today, which don't need a gasoline tax, I'm wondering why we don't do away with the gasoline tax altogether and go to a road-usage fee system based on the size and weight of the vehicle, since the heavier vehicles damage the roads more than the light vehicles. If it were based on the size and weight of the vehicle with a multiplier for miles driven...

  • 11:45:45


  • 11:45:46

    PETROSKIWell, there are already penalties for larger vehicles like trucks incorporated into fees. I think we are going to go to a fee-based -- a use fee as opposed to a gas tax. Several states are experimenting with it now -- notably, Oregon, and I believe California has just introduced some experimental activity in this area. And the idea would be that the miles you drive and the category of vehicle that you have will determine your fee. And it would be probably an annual fee.

  • 11:46:24

    PETROSKIIt's probably going to take years to shake down how exactly this is going to work because it has implications for privacy. Because people are going to either have to be -- their mileage is going to have to be tracked or we're going to have to rely upon self reporting. And once that's worked out, I think we will see this. There's no question about it.

  • 11:46:46

    REHMHere's an email from Carl in Washington, D.C. He says, the success and safety of self-driving cars may depend on our having a high-quality road system with a combination of good services -- surfaces, proper markings, and that would give good feedback to the vehicles' sensors and computers. This would a good argument for bringing our road system up to par.

  • 11:47:22

    PETROSKIThat's a good point. I think we're increasingly going to see autonomous vehicles, as they're sometimes called. This is going to be not only a technical issue, however, but a public policy issue. Our -- who is responsible for a driverless car getting into an accident, for example? And one of the big limitations is the weather. If it's raining heavily or snowing heavily, the autonomous cars don't work quite as well because their sensors are not as effective.

  • 11:47:55

    REHMTo Wyoming, Mich. Hi, Jerry, you're on the air.

  • 11:48:01

    JERRYThank you, Diane. It's great to be on your show.

  • 11:48:04


  • 11:48:04

    JERRYYour guest was talking about how well the roads in Europe were constructed when he was driving in Europe. And I would like him to elaborate on why the European roads are so well made.

  • 11:48:26

    PETROSKIWell, I'm afraid I don't know exactly why, other than it's got something to do with culture, I believe. When I see roads being worked on over there, I see a lot of hand labor. For example, rather than paving with asphalt, very often there, you -- paving stones are used, something that, you know, we've paved over in this country. We had a lot of paving stones in streets but we paved them over with asphalt. I watched, in Munich, Germany, last spring, them take up the stones on a sidewalk, carefully arrange them so they would put them back in exactly the same order. And they were just installing a new fiber-optic system or something.

  • 11:49:15

    PETROSKIIn our country, when we do that, we dig up lawns, we dig up streets, and we patch it, it's a bump. Over there, there were no bumps.

  • 11:49:24


  • 11:49:25

    PETROSKIAnd I think it's more to do with culture than with technology. The technology is informed by the culture, of course. But the -- we're certainly capable of doing the same thing. But our culture doesn't encourage it.

  • 11:49:38

    REHMSo are you saying it's a different approach generally to how they construct their roads?

  • 11:49:46

    PETROSKIYes. Definitely. Europe is very interesting. They certainly embrace high technology. I mean, you look at France and it's high-speed rail system and, you know, they were leaders in this. And they lead in a lot of other technologies. And yet they have a great respect for tradition and for how things were done. In this country, all too often we disrespect tradition. We don't have a respect for it.

  • 11:50:16


  • 11:50:17

    PETROSKIAnd it might be because we're such a young country and we're constantly remaking ourselves in a way, even as we are young. That's -- it's an important issue and I think it'll be a topic that we'll be discussing for another few centuries.

  • 11:50:33

    REHMHere's an email from Barbara. What are your thoughts about using prison labor to address the poor state of road and bridge repair and maintenance?

  • 11:50:46

    PETROSKIWell, it's, you know, on its surface, it's an excellent idea. Take idle hands and idle minds and put them to work. It's got all sorts of moral implications. My concern with using labor that is not expert is, what is the quality of the product going to be? So it's one thing to have prison labor maybe pick up litter on the side of the road, which you do see very often along Interstate Highways. But I think it would be another thing for having prison labor finishing concrete or finishing asphalt roads, as they, very simply probably would not have the experience. And it's possible they wouldn't have the motivation either.

  • 11:51:34

    REHMHave they been used in that way?

  • 11:51:39

    PETROSKIIt's possible. I don't know of a...

  • 11:51:40


  • 11:51:41

    PETROSKI...specific instance.

  • 11:51:41

    REHMOf course, what we think of is prisoners working on railroad tracks.

  • 11:51:47


  • 11:51:48

    REHMSame issue there, perhaps?

  • 11:51:51

    PETROSKISure. It'd be the same issue. In this country -- not that long ago, say, a century ago, and certainly back in the 19th century -- citizens -- untrained citizens would be responsible for repairing the roads, taking care of the roads, maintaining the roads. But, of course, this was a different era. The roads were largely gravel, if they were that, or dirt. And it was a -- to fix them up would be a matter of filling the holes and raking them level. But these days, that just won't do because traffic is of a different kind.

  • 11:52:25

    REHMSo what do you see as the responsibility of the individual as far as infrastructure?

  • 11:52:35

    PETROSKIPaying taxes. Expressing opinion when infrastructure issues come to a vote, whether it be through bond issues or voting for candidates who have particular opinions. I don't think I've seen, yet, a presidential -- I know I haven't seen a presidential debate devoted to the topic of infrastructure. The word has come up now and then. But I haven't seen any in-depth discussion of the topic.

  • 11:53:07

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Ray in San Antonio, Texas. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:53:19

    RAYThank you, Diane. I drive a Class 8 truck and what a lot of the population doesn't understand is that in every state we pay an additional tax for every mile we drive over the $500 just to get our IFTA sticker every year. As opposed to raising our taxes, how about we just build the roads right in the first place? I mean, working on a road crew is -- was -- that's real job security in this country.

  • 11:53:50

    PETROSKII think you make an excellent point. That's one of my pet peeves, in fact, is roads -- new roads that are newly made or newly pave or repaved that are not smooth and are not -- they should not have been passed by whoever inspected and declared the contract satisfying.

  • 11:54:08

    REHMBut, now, here's another perspective on that issue. Rob is in South Lyon, Mich. You're on the air.

  • 11:54:18

    ROBGood morning, Diane. It's an honor to be on your show.

  • 11:54:20


  • 11:54:21

    ROBYou're welcome. My perspective touches on a similar subject to what gentleman and then the gentleman earlier spoke to. In Michigan, we have very poorly build roads in my opinion. I've lived here most of my life so I'm pretty familiar with it. And I drive truck like the last gentleman. My question is, what is the incentive to these construction companies to go and make these roads better or to do them correctly or engineer them correctly, when they're the same people with their huge weight loads and with their huge payloads that destroy the roads? And then they're the same people who get tasked by the state and federal governments to go back through and fix the roads.

  • 11:55:01

    ROBTo me, it seems like a rigged system, where they're allowed to go beat it up, tax dollars come back into their company, they're allowed to fix it, and then they get to go back up and tear it up again and keep their own job security.

  • 11:55:12

    PETROSKIWell, I think you make a very defensible point and I think you could elaborate upon that. I don't understand why there is so much deference to construction crews either. And I see it at a very local level, at the neighborhood level, when a new house is built for example. There seems to be, very often, not always, a disrespect for neighboring properties. The heavy trucks parking all over and creating ruts in grass that people have taken time and spent money on. And so that's on a local level. And I think most people have experienced this if they live in, say, the suburbs.

  • 11:55:59

    PETROSKII think, ultimately, it's got to do with enforcement or lack thereof. And I wish there would be more rigorous enforcement of what is expected and what is allowed of construction crews period.

  • 11:56:15

    REHMWas there more, say, 50 years ago? More oversight? More...

  • 11:56:24

    PETROSKINot necessarily, because there is plenty of evidence that there was dissatisfaction with the construction or roads and the process of designating rights of way and so forth. There is some indication that the change in materials may have had something to do with this. Concrete versus asphalt has been a topic of some debate for some time. And, of course, people didn't like concrete because it had seams and it gave a bouncy ride. But, today, asphalt has potholes. So...

  • 11:57:09


  • 11:57:10

    PETROSKISo we're back where we started.

  • 11:57:12

    REHMHenry Petroski, and his book titled "The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure. Thanks so much for being here.

  • 11:57:25

    PETROSKIWell, thank you, Diane. It's been wonderful.

  • 11:57:27

    REHMThank you. And thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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