Gridlocked

This week we’re talking about roads, rails and powerlines — and the lives we live with them. Our Boston staff and radio listeners are mostly hearty New Englanders, but this winter of discontent has exposed all kinds of shortcomings in the underpinnings of our great city.

The roads are a mess, and the MBTA won’t be up and running fully until one month after the last snow. We spoke to commuters on the Charles/MGH platform whose fingers are cold and nerves are shot — and they told us that the T had been mismanaged, the governor needed to step in, and that (finally) we all had to take responsibility for building a tougher, better transit system.

T-platform-backup

Meanwhile, Fred Salvucci and Gov. Michael Dukakis remind us that our hometown’s got a proud tradition of public transporation: from streetcars and smooth-roads legislation to the Tremont Street Subway, the oldest in North America. Boston is a pre-car city wondering how to become a post-car city — in time for the Olympics, if we’re lucky!

But we’re seeing here, as everywhere, how the big American building craze has gotten complicated. As infrastructure improvements shrink in the budgets and the keystone projects of the last century show their age: subways flood, bridges crumble, and highways fall apart. We’re not quite boosters for our own Olympics bid yet — but it would make for a real opportunity to futurize our 400-year-old hometown. And opportunities like that are hard to come by in an moment of debt, climate change and patching up potholes.

How did it get this way? How do we break a cycle of disappointment and decay? And if the state of American infrastructure is an index for the state of American civic life, what does it say when the train breaks down?

The Sound of the Subway

Our producer Conor Gillies spoke with Paul Matisse, grandson to the great painter and draughtsman, poignantly looking on to his installation, The Kendall Band. It’s a now-famous series of swingable chimes hanging between Red Line rails at the Kendall Square stop — and like other parts of the MBTA, it’s broken.

Peeking Over the Snowbanks

Obital solar farm

The geostationary solar farms of Japan’s dreams. Illustration: John MacNeill/IEEE Spectrum

And, if you need something to look forward to, check out Pat Tomaino’s round-up of our favorite infrastructure ideas for a new century — from shovel-ready, to prototypes, to sci-fi. Which ones would get you buying infrastructure bonds?

 

The ‘train schedule from hell’ photo credit goes to Sean Proctor, a Globe staff photographer.

Guest List
Jim Aloisi
former state secretary of transportation, columnist for Commonwealth magazine, in the private-engineering sector at AECOM's emerging tech group, and author of The Vidal Lecture.  
Ryan C. C. Chin
managing director of the City Science Initiative at the MIT Media Lab.
Fred Salvucci
civil engineer and lecturer at MIT's department of civil & environmental engineering.
John Stilgoe
flâneur, professor in the history of landscape at the Visual and Environmental Studies Department of Harvard University, and author of the forthcoming book, Landscape and Images.
Reading List
Beyond Traffic 2045: Trends and Choices (pdf)
Department of Transportation report
From the Department of Transportation, a longterm forecast of transit's possibilities and its perils, including a country that's hotter, wetter, and more crowded, trying to travel down old roads — leading to L.A. freeway-style traffic jams in Omaha. Enough to give you nightmares!
America's Infrastructure Is Slowly Falling Apart
Bill Bradley, VICE
Take a depressing school bus ride with a D student: America’s “crumbling” infrastructure system. Bradley toured seven problem areas with the American Society of Civil Engineers as his guide. Though you don’t have to be an engineer get your head around the problem:
The Frederick Douglass Memorial is trafficked by over 70,000 cars traveling to and from the nation's capital...It will cost a projected $900 million to get the bridge back up to standards. "Look, it's not just that the paint is peeling off," the ASCE's Pallasch said. "Even the layperson can see that this bridge needs some work."
More money won't fix U.S. infrastructure if we don't change how it's spent
Angie Schmitt, StreetsBlog USA
America’s roads and bridges need more federal help, and taxes and budget lines are headed in the wrong direction. Schmitt argues that we aren't spending correctly — not on main:
The system is set up to funnel the vast majority of spending through state departments of transportation, and those agencies have an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to making smart long-term decisions. As long as state DOTs retain unfettered control of the money, potholed roads and decrepit bridges will remain the norm.
The MBTA’s long, winding, infuriating road to failure
David Scharfenberg, The Boston Globe
A well-researched report on the various players in the sprawling story of a weakened and massively indebted MBTA: from Dukakis and Salvucci to Charlie Chieppo of the conservative Pioneer Institute.

Related Content


  • Great collection of books at Stilgoe’s website – I wonder if he’s read some of my favorites:
    “Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New
    England” or O. Winston Link: Life Along the Line: A Photographic Portrait of America’s Last Great Steam Railroad

  • Cambridge Forecast

    JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH THEME OF PUBLIC SQUALOR
    AS A CONTEXT FOR THIS DISCUSSION

    The ROS set up essay for this show is characteristically shrewd:
    ”How did it get this way? How do we break a cycle of disappointment and decay? And if the state of American infrastructure is an index for the state of American civic life, what does it say when the train breaks down?”

    Prof. Galbraith of Harvard used to emphasize in his talks and books the distorted public/private imbalance in America where private wealth is always ringed by public squalor. Americans are somewhat “society-blind” since the mythopoetic idols like the Marlboro Man is a rugged individualist and not a socialist.

    Galbraithian “public squalor” is a useful framing device for the whole ROS discussion since war jingoism aside, there’s really no “we” in American society.

    Richard Melson