EDITORIAL: A friendly exchange

Recent report uses numbers to declare improving state

Blog Entry March 06, 2013
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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A grassy field was the only harmless separation of this relationship.

I grew up three houses up from my best friend, Rich. Well, it was more like a vacant lot and two houses up. For years, a huge landscape of tall grass and a slender patch of trees was available beyond the back property lines of a row of residences along Foxcroft Road in Naperville, Ill. It would funnel into an open space about 50 yd wide between Rich’s pad and that of my next-door neighbor’s.

As kids, the field was our refuge during weekends and the extended summer break. Baseball and football games would be scheduled during any and all parts of our free time. All we needed were referees and umpires to make it all official, but because we did not have access to these wise guys, all contests were exhibition. However, as soon as you put Rich and me on opposite sides, it turned into quite the exhibition indeed. I wanted nothing more than to bury Rich’s head into the ground, and then stomp on it relentlessly until he was fighting for his last breath. Just writing about it is spiking the competitive adrenaline to pubescent levels. I know where this man lives, and I can take my garage-stained football and storm through his front door, bury his head in his kitchen tile and . . . and . . . OK, deep breaths. Deeeeep breaths.

Rich’s killer instinct is juiced with the same amount of testosterone, and I have no doubt if the challenge did present itself the only hesitation would come because we are both in our 40s, and severely prone to injuries.

Now I love the Reason Foundation. I think, for the most part, they are a fine research arm of the transportation industry. However, a recent study produced by this organization has me once again going face to face with a body I consider a brother. Yet I feel the need to, on this occasion, bend back that fine research arm until there is a wince of discomfort. According to a Reason Foundation report, which examines 20 years of state highway data, the condition of state-controlled roads in the U.S. has actually improved in seven areas, including deficient bridges and pavement condition. In fact, according to their numbers, 40 states reduced their percentages of deficient bridges during that time. Nationwide, the number of deficient bridges in the country fell from 37.8% of all bridges in 1989 to 23.7% in 2008.

“There are still plenty of problems to fix, but our roads and bridges aren’t crumbling,” said David Hartgen, lead author of the Reason Foundation report.

So if they are not crumbling, Dr. Hartgen, what exactly are they doing? What do you call a situation in Maryland where one section on the underside of the I-70 bridge is marked in big, bold spray-painted letters “WATCH”? What do you call a situation in that same state where the funding is so dire that there is little to no money for road maintenance this year? Expanding just a bit, what do you call bridges over the Ohio River that are closed due to cracks found in girders? Would you classify those as “holding steady”? In my book (or should I just call it a study?), all three examples are holding on for dear life.

I also have no problem turning to another referee for an official call. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers recently released a report card on the state of the infrastructure, and roads and bridges both received a grade of D. That is not on the improving side of the grade scale.

Furthermore, you cannot say everything is OK when your report is missing the last four years. I can take more shots, but the game clock is quickly expiring here, so here is one closing comment: Stop using the geek approach of standing strong behind mere numbers and face the true bully—an endless landscape of deteriorating routes—live and in person. I suggest you strap on some headgear. R&B

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