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A crumbling infrastructure by any other name...

By Martha Spizziri | September 26, 2016 | 4:40 PM | Categories: Transportation

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I'm a fan of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible, which points out how design affects our lives in ways that we often don't even notice. In a recent episode, the host, Roman Mars, interviewed Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University. Petroski recently wrote a book called The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure.

It's no secret that the federal gas tax isn't nearly keeping up with the costs of road maintenance, but raising it isn't a popular idea with voters. The interview pointed out that, with the advent of hybrid and electric cars, a fuel tax might not be the best way to fund highway projects anyway. Instead of taxing gas, says Petroski, we should be taxing miles. Pilot programs to do that are underway, but there are problems with that idea, too. Petroski thinks it will be at least 10 years before a new funding mechanism is in place—but he does think it will happen.

A surprising fact that came up during the interview: the word "infrastructure" is actually pretty new. Infrastructure projects were called "public works" up until about the 1980s, according to Petroski. But because people started to equate public works with dubious "pork-barrel" projects, advocates began using the term "infrastructure" instead.

Mars suggested that reclaiming the phrase "public works" might help motivate the voting public to fund those programs. After all, the word "infrastructure" is pretty abstract and hard to get excited about. "Public works," on the other hand, emphasizes that we, the people, benefit from these projects.

The episode is called "Public Works: Rethinking America's Infrastructure." It's just under 20 minutes long, and it's worth a listen. 

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