Why is U.S. infrastructure such a mess? Economics, corruption, and racism are just a few reasons

Why is U.S. infrastructure such a mess? Economics, corruption, and racism are just a few reasons

There are over 4.1 million miles of public road in the United States. These paths of concrete and asphalt are the legacy of President Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the Interstate Highway System as well as being the impetus for other roads to support the expansion it caused.

This had massive economic and cultural reverberations, with estimates linking the highway system to significant direct and indirect job growth. Safe and efficient roads make for predictable just-in-time supply chains, lowering costs. Easier access to get in and out of cities contributed to suburbanization of communities. Overall, as highways came into prominence, the open road and automobile became associated with social mobility, empowerment, progress, and aspects of the collective American Dream.

If you were one of the estimated 37 million people who traveled over Memorial Day weekend,  your trip probably included experiences with the crumbling infrastructure of the United States; 43% of roads have been judged to be in poor or mediocre condition. Estimates of what it would take to fix everything that’s broken exceed even the most generous plans currently being debated in Congress. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers believed an investment of more than $4 trillion by 2025 was needed just to keep pace with repairs on existing structures, or the country could expect a loss of a similar amount from GDP to result from delays and problems affecting transportation, productivity, and commerce.

For those traveling over one of the 600,000 bridges in the United States this summer, almost a third of those bridges are more than 50 years old, and about one in four of the country’s bridges were deemed deficient in a General Accounting Office analysis from 2015. If everyone piles into the family’s new Tesla or other electric vehicle to trek across the highways, they’ll be depending on a power system where most of its existing transmission lines were “created in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and the more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids are at full capacity.” Wherever people go (or even for those that stay home), they may be affected by aging sewage pipes, water treatment plants, airports, dams, levees, and other aspects of society in dire need of upgrades or replacement.

All of these infrastructure issues have become exacerbated because federal, state, and local governments only spend half as much on the nation’s public infrastructure relative to the size of the economy as we did in post-World War II America. As a country, we only spend half of what European countries do on building and maintaining infrastructure, and only about a quarter of what China has dedicated to upgrades that analysts believe will expand their economic influence from East Asia to Europe. So even after Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema have finally decided we’ve sacrificed enough time to the gods of bipartisanship and we’re allowed to spend some money on infrastructure, in the end we’re likely to only be spending a fraction putting patches on the old stuff instead of what would be necessary for an American society upgraded for the 21st century. 

If one just focuses on roads and highways, they’ll see an integral part of everyday life that’s intertwined with economic growth, environmental concerns, public corruption, and racial divisions. It’s interesting to contemplate the amount of time and resources wasted and aggravation endured because of what happens when awful decisions made in civic planning are combined with shitty roads and bad drivers.

Every mile of road is open to the same political vices as other programs that suffer from waste, fraud, and abuse, as well as far more nefarious goals and ulterior motives. Politicians vie for transportation funds to use as political capital so they can sometimes build Bridges to Nowhere for favor and influence. This has been a problem since the original interstates were being built; a 1960 Cincinnati Enquirer article describes the Eisenhower administration having to deal with criticisms that the entire thing was a “highway bungle” that was a “rat hole” of waste and extravagance.

The specific placement of a new road or bridge, or the upgrade of an old one, with the traffic that will pass through certain points within an area because of it, can have positive or negative effects on businesses and communities. It can also be used to displace or corral any part of the population one deems undesirable. Allegedly, Robert Moses, the “master planner” of the road systems around New York City, purposely made the bridges on the parkways and highways that lead to Long Island low. The reason for those low bridges was to make it impossible for public buses to cross under them, with the idea being that it would keep African Americans away from parks and tourist destinations on Long Island and constrained to certain areas.

Instead of containing a community, a different strategy was used in Detroit, Michigan, to expel people. There are six separate interstate highways that run through Detroit. The placement of those highways around the city was intentionally routed through Detroit to clear out Black communities. The most egregious of these roads was I-375, which took out 350 Black-owned businesses and surrounding homes just to build a 1-mile section of interstate, the shortest of the entire interstate system.

This form of systemic racism has lingering effects and costs, like traffic delays, lateness for work, and productivity lost. You may be sitting on a jammed interstate because the road was built to create walls between minorities and whites instead of efficiency, and may have totally failed in the planner’s nefarious plan to create a whiter city. The interstates that were used to expel Black folks only exacerbated “White Flight” from Detroit, and today I-375 is so pointless and dilapidated that officials in Detroit are actively debating the best way to get rid of it.

Of course, even in a perfect world where none of these factors existed, the development and maintenance of highways and the infrastructure to support it can have unintended consequences. The urban sprawl of it all can contribute to water and air pollution, inequality and social fragmentation, and ultimately still result in lost time in travel. Along these lines, it’s interesting to note that President Eisenhower never intended for the interstate system that bears his name to go through city centers. In recent years, there’s been movement toward urban renewal and removing highways from cities in order to spark community connectivity through new shared spaces. The argument for this urban development sees highways as literal walls and barriers that force people apart and constrict them to a certain lifestyle dependent on roads and cars and everything that supports that system.

I’m from Tennessee (or “The 901” for whenever we decide to secede from the rest of the state) and the solution to road problems and potholes is generally to lay down a thick metal plate in the road to cover it up. The possible effects on tires and suspensions for people who have to drive over those plates at 60 miles per hour is something the Tennessee Department of Transportation doesn’t sweat. When they do get around to a fix, they’ll take their sweet time and do it in the stupidest way imaginable to block traffic and make people’s commutes all the worse.

With the shutdown of the I-40 connection between Memphis and Arkansas in May after major problems were found in the Hernando de Soto Bridge connecting the two across the Mississippi River, the infrastructure issues of Memphis roads have greatly affected business in the city. Memphis, which is the headquarters and a major hub of FedEx, is experiencing the loss of millions in revenue because of failed infrastructure, with traffic delays and jams impacting everyone.

Repair crews were finally able to patch the bridge up enough to where eastbound lanes of I-40 reopened this weekend. However, the Memphis bridge episode is proof of how important infrastructure can be to a community, and how the ripples that occur can expand out to affect everyone. People should remember that the next time a conservative whines about how building something is “too expensive.” Because there are many places right there with Memphis that might lose massive amounts of economic potential just because the roads and bridges suck.

Which stretches of highway are the worst among the mediocre roads we currently have? Every city in this country, from big to small, has vivid examples of crumbling infrastructure, but what they all have in common is how these inequities impact everyone who drives those streets.

Here are some of the worst of the worst:

Washington, D.C.—I-95 South, Exit 133A to the Fairfax County Parkway, Virginia

Traffic around the Capital Beltway has been noted for how awful it is for years, with a recent analysis finding Washington, D.C. commuters spend 102 hours a year stuck on the highway, up from 90 hours in 2012. Just on the section between I-95 south to the Fairfax County Parkway, drivers spend on average 33 minutes going 6 miles. The cost of that congestion will impact the economy to the tune of $2.3 billion over this decade.

I-4—Tampa to Daytona Beach, Florida

Considered to be the deadliest stretch of highway in the country, the length of interstate between Tampa and Daytona is 132 miles long and from 2016 to 2019 it averaged 1.134 deaths per every one of those miles. This section of I-4 cuts through Orlando, where theme parks, malls, and everything else that makes life somewhat tolerable in Central Florida compounds the issue of the road. A lot of tourists, many probably unfamiliar with the area, drive through an artery that has to deal with an intense rainy season during the summer months, and may be in various states of repair or construction.

Interesting side notes about this road: The road officially goes east and west even though in actuality it moves north and south. Also, I-4 is said to be haunted and have a “dead zone,” since areas of the highway were constructed over the graves of German immigrants.

Interstate-405—I-405 N at Exit 43 to Exit 21 and I-405 S at Exit 22 to Exit 45

Anyone who has ever lived in California and experienced the majesty of the Los Angeles freeway system will know that one of the most wretched experiences on this planet may be driving on the 405. Usually, there’s no exit, interchange, or hour of the day that there’s not an accident, traffic, or some form of construction underway. These two stretches of I-405 are responsible for drivers having to wait in traffic for almost 30 minutes to travel about 5 miles with an estimated impact of over $3 billion in lost productivity

I-45—Dallas to Galveston, Texas

Officials blame the high number of deaths on the road to “texting while driving, drunk driving, which is a well-documented problem in Harris County, and excessive speed.” From Dallas to Galveston, the road has one of the highest deaths per mile traveled as anywhere in the country. Within the Houston area, there are parts of the interstate where one can expect to sometimes sit in traffic for an average of 75 minutes to travel 5 miles.

Brooklyn–Queens Expressway (BQE)—Exit 28A to the West Shore Expressway

A 5-mile area of highway that tends to be constantly under repair, the level of planning surrounding it seems to have been horribly thought out in a drunken fever dream, and also sees around 153,000 vehicles a day moving across its surface when it was only designed to deal with 47,000. A panel appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio last year recommended removing two lanes from each side of the expressway, aggressively fining trucks that drive on the road illegally, and hoping New York’s plan to introduce congestion pricing will limit the traffic. The panel warned that if the status quo was kept the BQE would be unsafe and unfit for travel by 2025. One year later and the BQE is still falling apart and there is currently no agreed upon plan to do anything about it.

I-75 (Atlanta)—I-75 N at Exit 271 to I-75/I-85

This section of the Atlanta freeway system is infamous for its Downtown Connector and the mishmash of highways known as Spaghetti Junction, a five-level interchange with multiple ramps and smaller roads feeding into it. The area is considered one of the worst for truckers, and drivers in Atlanta spend about two hours each week stuck in their car. The reason why Atlanta’s road system gets so bad has connections to the city’s history of racism.

I-20, the east-west corridor that connects with I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta’s center, was specifically intended to be “the boundary between the white and Negro communities” to the west of the city according to Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield. Kevin M. Kruse looked at how this decision has impacted transportation in the city for decades for The New York Times Magazine.

Black neighborhoods, [Hartsfield] hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while white neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected. Racial residential patterns have long since changed, of course, but the awkward path of I-20 remains in place.

By razing impoverished areas downtown and segregating the races in the western section, Atlanta’s leaders hoped to keep downtown and its surroundings a desirable locale for middle-class whites. Articulating a civic vision of racial peace and economic progress, Hartsfield bragged that Atlanta was the “City Too Busy to Hate.” But the so-called urban renewal and the new Interstates only helped speed white flight from Atlanta. Over the 1960s, roughly 60,000 whites left the city, with many of them relocating in the suburbs along the northern rim. When another 100,000 whites left the city in the 1970s, it became a local joke that Atlanta had become “The City Too Busy Moving to Hate.”

As the new suburbs ballooned in size, traffic along the poorly placed highways became worse and worse. The obvious solution was mass transit—buses, light rail and trains that would more efficiently link the suburbs and the city—but that, too, faced opposition, largely for racial reasons. The white suburbanites had purposefully left the problems of the central city behind and worried that mass transit would bring them back.

Roads in Louisiana

About one out of every four roads in the state are in poor condition according to the Federal Highway Administration. About 47% of the major roads are in poor or mediocre shape. The state’s roads are considered to be among the most riddled with bumps and potholes that a driver needs to “slow way down to about 30 mph or you will hurt yourself or your vehicle.” A climate not conducive for good road conditions combined with a legislature that “hasn’t increased any long-term funding in about 30 years” has led to shit surface conditions.  

Roads in Hawaii

At least one analysis found 42% of the roads in Hawaii were poor. The state also has the distinction of the least amount of road of any in the union, but also the most spent per mile. Weather issues and “thin asphalt” are possible explanations. Experiments with different forms of asphalt are being researched as a possible fix.

Long Island Expressway—Exit 50 to Exit 70

The LIE is known for a terrible twosome of having horrible conditions and experiencing delays that turn it into “the world’s longest parking lot.” The bumpy conditions have led to motorists complaining of being scared to drive on the pothole-laden expressway, as well as being on the receiving end of blown-out tires from the experience.

Kennedy Interchange (Louisville)—Merging of I-64, I-65, and I-71

Opened in 1964 and just north of downtown Louisville, Kentucky, the Kennedy Interchange is a massive interstate interchange that sits next to the city’s waterfront. In truth, the interchange is a physical barrier between the city and the waterfront. In the late 2000s, the interchange was reaching the end of its useful life and had overpasses that no longer met federal safety standards. A group of activists and business interests proposed removing the interchange, diverting traffic, and building a boulevard in front of the waterfront that would make the area more accessible to the people of Louisville and add another better aspect to living in downtown Louisville.

The proposal ultimately went nowhere, especially after wealthy suburban property owners bitterly opposed it. In 2012, Kentucky lawmakers decided to spend $2.6 billion on a project with 18 elevated lanes, two bridges, and a raised interchange. The expansion consumed 33 acres of forest and 30 storefronts mostly in minority areas of the city.

The new Spaghetti Junction in downtown Louisville is finally complete. Check out our aerial photos of the crossing https://t.co/rwhQVfY0CS pic.twitter.com/vlofp77N9c

— Courier Journal (@courierjournal) December 27, 2016

David Roberts at Vox lamented the consequences of separating a city from nature with a giant elevated interstate.

The power of cities is in the connections that form among people and institutions in close proximity. Intra-urban freeways destroy that connectivity. They chop cities into pieces, creating disconnected zones, isolating people from business districts and often from urban waterfronts. They occupy enormous swaths of valuable land but produce no tax revenue; they only absorb revenue in maintenance costs.

What’s more, the impact of urban freeways is not evenly distributed. It is most often poor communities and communities of color that are displaced to build freeways, and it is most often those communities that get herded into low-value zones adjacent to freeways.

We’re living in the 21st century. Aren’t we supposed to have cities made of crystal spires, everyone wearing the same silver jumpsuit, and nuclear-powered flying cars? One would think paving a road shouldn’t be this damn hard, but it often is. It sounds like a small issue, but if one thinks about it, whether a government can efficiently and reasonably deal with a road can be emblematic of how it might deal with “larger” issues.

Those larger issues connect to infrastructure in tangible and destructive ways that have shaped American culture and the way we think about living in a city, in the suburbs, and as a community. If and when we get to the business of spending on infrastructure, we should keep those concerns in mind, because it will be our children and grandchildren who will have to live with the roads we pave and the barriers they create. Because there’s an argument to be had whether we should spend billions upon billions of dollars patching up roads when we could build trains instead.

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