Books

four takes

As Trump looks to strengthen our roads and bridges, some books on infrastructure

Seth Wenig/ap file photo

Of all the plans President Trump may tackle, infrastructure is likely what he knows best. He’s been a builder, after all. He’s done real estate deals. And for a man who likes big, this is big: Trump has thrown out whopping figures, from $500 billion to $1 trillion for an infrastructure package (Hillary Clinton’s plan was $275 billion). And he vowed to push it through in his first 100 days. That much that soon? We’ll see.

The good news, though, is that “infrastructure is something without ideology or party,” says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Harvard B-School professor and author. That’s why we’ll get some sort of plan; there’s real need and rare bipartisan momentum. So let’s get a read on all this, starting with Kanter’s “Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead” (Norton, 2015).

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And move she does, visiting business leaders, mayors, and transportation wonks, and covering everything from broken bridges to broadband. Much of her book’s bandwidth, though, goes to the “P3” strategy, as in “public-private partnership.” P3 is hot on both sides of the aisle, though you’ll be shocked to learn that Republicans think the private sector should take charge, while Democrats favor the public.

Kanter profiles a P3 project that got everything right: the $1 billion Port of Miami Tunnel, which opened on budget and on time and allows trucks to take merchandise off ships via the tunnel, thereby avoiding passenger traffic and easing congestion downtown. The French company that drilled the tunnel (it helped dig the Chunnel) joined a consortium that gets 30-year rights to the project. (The word “infrastructure,” is French, actually, a relic of their grand plan for railroads in the 19th century). But the consortium must return the tunnel to Dade County — in perfect condition — when the time’s up and meanwhile only gets paid when it meets specific milestones.

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The Port of Miami Tunnel opened in 2014, but Henry Petroski goes way back in “The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure” (Bloomsbury, 2016). He teaches civil engineering and history at Duke University and taught me all sorts of great stuff. Like how the Romans carefully fit stones together to cover their streets (called pavimentum, thus the origin of “pavement”). Or how a Michigan road official in 1911 “observed a milk wagon leaking some of its contents and leaving a white stripe behind it” on the road. Thus the idea of the centerline, first laid down in Detroit.

Petroski pans wide, analyzing the politics and design of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and he pans tight, analyzing the street he lives on, from gutters to curbs to potholes. Who knew that the future of pothole repair lies in the kitchen? One day, trucks may haul a giant microwave and melt pothole cracks right on site, a.k.a. “self-healing asphalt.” Bonus Bay State angle: Petroski lauds Route 128, which first showed that a road outside a city could generate economic development.

But infrastructure isn’t just roads and bridges, as becomes clear in “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future” (Bloomsbury, 2016). Author Gretchen Bakke, who teaches anthropology at McGill University, is an insightful, elegant writer: Transformers “cluster like coconuts” in her dissection of what’s on a telephone pole. And the grid is “built as much from law as from steel.” Her main point is that the grid is entwined in civilization itself: It’s “a machine, an infrastructure, a cultural artifact, a set of business practices, and an ecology.”

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And it’s on the verge of widespread failure. In fact, America’s power plants are aging, and we have more yearly outages than any other developed nation. (Top culprit? Overgrown foliage.) Bakke says we must come full circle. The grid began as small, local electric companies, then consolidated into giant regional ones — and thus minor outages became major. The solution? Go back to micro-grids — as US military bases have already done for security reasons.

My last book is just so cool. “Infrastructure: A Guide to the Industrial Landscape” (Norton, 2014) takes “the form of a nature guide, but its subject is everything that isn’t nature.” There are numerous photos and author Brian Hayes, a senior writer for American Scientist, explains innumerable things: why nuclear power plants are shaped that way (for maximum cooling air flow), how water tower design evolved, and why certain oil wells are fitted with a “Christmas tree,” a tall stack of valves and backup valves.

My eyes have really opened since I read it, and now I size up manhole covers and substations instead of ignore them. We ignore infrastructure at our peril, of course. The trick is to stoke jobs in any package, rather than a corporate welfare plan for contractors, and forge P3s that are prodigious, pragmatic, and prescient.

Katharine Whittemore can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast. net.
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