I have agreed to jump into an old rusty 1949 Hudson with a dude I’ve never met, and drive across the middle of the United States. No air conditioning, no seat cushioning and no prospect of regular showering. We’ll be stopping at construction sites, public works garages and DOT offices, anywhere they let us in.
Just two crazy transportation infrastructure addicts.
It actually started out with Bart Ney, former spokesman for the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge project. If I’m an addict, he’s a junkie, in the best possible way. He nudged and nudged and nudged some more until I finally had the time to agree: I would write an article on oft-maligned megaprojects and the public message about their long-term legacies.
Well, what could be more of a poster child for maligned megaprojects than the Big Dig? I asked Bart, who mentioned that his friend Dan McNichol had written a book on the subject as well as on the building of the Interstate system. Oh, and Dan had also done an infrastructure road trip across America, sponsored by a contractor.
Wow! Cool! I exclaimed. I have to interview this guy for the feature. Near what I thought was the end of the interview, I mention how cool that trip sounded. And he says, “Well, why don’t we go?”
He wants the ENR connection, to boost his already shiny brand as an author. And I just want to drive across the country and check out the infrastructure. After spending years systematically and sympathetically observing my airport, highway, bridge, rail, transit and port people gnash their teeth and wring their hands over the perennial lack of consistent and reliable federal funding, I wanted to Just.Get.Out.There and see it for myself. That’s what reporters are supposed to do.
Not just the big glamorous projects that I am lucky enough to get to do regularly (although they will be included on this trip), but the bread-and-butter stuff that doesn’t get a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The public works guy in a small municipality, holding bridges together with duct tape and baling wire.
We’ll trot out the Hudson in D.C. with APWA, hoping to get a little attention from Congress. We’ll make a beeline for the Ohio River Bridges project, hopefully meeting Appalachian public works people along the way. We’ll visit engineers supporting their public clients, and their public clients. I’ll try to figure out how to catch an occasional Mets game somehow. If all goes well, we’ll end up in my hometown of LA.
Come to think of it, infrastructure in the U.S., especially maintenance of it, is kind of like the Mets. The underdog. Not glamorous. Not “sexy,” as John Oliver recently riffed on.
That Hollywood-star-studded skit on Last Week Tonight, and a 60 Minutes piece, are promising signs that the issue may finally get the mainstream attention it deserves. Our road trip will hopefully make some contribution to that goal as well. And we’ll share the stories we find on enr.com and in the magazine. Be sure to keep up with our blogs and tweets (@aileencho). Wish me luck.