Darrell Carlisle approached the 1949 Hudson sedan, nicknamed Mrs. Martin and serving as a low-slung symbol of America's aging infrastructure. Standing at a gas station off Interstate 64 between Louisville, Ky., and St. Louis, the Jefferson, Ind., resident recalled a "60 Minutes" television episode on infrastructure and thought of a Pittsburgh bridge, which had a special platform built to catch spalling concrete.

"Every time I go across a bridge, I think about that," Carlisle said. "How well was this built, and how well was it kept up? It's scary." Rick Stinson, director of public works for Wakefield, Mass., hopes the car, which is taking ENR on a cross-country tour, will strike a chord in many people. "I hope it really brings awareness to the state and federal officials but also to citizens who don't understand how far behind our infrastructure has fallen and needs to be improved," he says.

Public-works departments should be funded similarly to first responders, Stinson asserts. "We respond to emergencies that affect the entire town, not isolated incidents. To be able to have the necessary equipment and facilities that allow us to appropriately respond is important." The brutal winter caused the town's $650,000 snow-removal budget to go over by $1.2 million, he notes.

ENR's road trip, "Low & Slow Across America's Infrastructure," began in mid-May in Boston, the home of Mrs. Martin and her owner, Dan McNichol, who wrote "The Roads That Built America." ENR contributor McNichol and Senior Transportation Editor Aileen Cho visited Stinson, a board member of tour partner American Public Works Association, and Michael Collins, director of public works for Beverly, Mass.

Collins offered his town's 150 miles of roads as a test bed for Northeastern University's Versatile Onboard Traffic Embedded Roaming Sensors technology, in which a van equipped with tire-pressure sensors, microphones and ground-penetrating radar mapped and documented the pavement. DPW crews now can use the information to gauge which sections of road should be prioritized for repairs. Moreover, they will be able to pinpoint trouble areas and do roadwork more efficiently. "Instead of ripping up an entire street's pavement, we're repaving just 500 feet or even 100 feet of bad roads," says Collins. "We're certain where the damage lies. Now, we'll avoid replacing good pavement with good pavement."

Such technology tools are becoming ever more essential as public infrastructure stewards struggle to make do with limited budgets. "I asked my congressman [Rep. Mike Capuano, D-Mass.] about increased funding levels for DPWs, and he flat-out said, 'It's not going to happen,' " Collins says, noting that Capuano is in favor of increasing DPW budgets but is in the minority in Congress.

Advocates remind Congress that infrastructure investment is vital to economic development, said APWA Executive Director Peter King at a tour kickoff ceremony at the D.C. Dept. of Public Works. "It's a little bit scary to think that much of our infrastructure was built before 1949—before that car," he added, gesturing at the rusty Hudson. She sat amid a gleaming fleet of energy-efficient sanitation trucks as APWA members marked Public Works Awareness Week.

Listening Tour

The Hudson, aging and energy-depleted, represents the condition of much of the country's infrastructure. The tour will report on and analyze how public officials manage to keep it all together while also planning and building for the future.

An example of that was the tour's first construction-site stop at the 6,695-ft-long Bayonne Bridge. The $1-billion program to raise the roadway to 215 ft from 151 ft within the existing truss arch would bring it to modern standards, including shoulders and an improved bicycle-pedestrian path. It also enables post-Panamax ships to pass into the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey's port facilities.