Miscellany — From the November 2017 issue

Bumpy Ride

Why America’s roads are in tatters

One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

Slater’s 1997 pickup has 200,000 miles on it and countless scars from the obstacle course of Brickyard Road. “My wife keeps yelling at me, ‘Buy another truck!’ ” he told me. “I’d hate to drive a new car on this road.”

This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit devoted to journalism about inequality.

Speaking over the rattling of the truck, Slater pointed to the spot where an Amish woman had been driving a buggy when her horse stepped into a deep pothole and injured its leg. (Patches, age eleven, had to be put down after the incident, she later told me.) He showed me where he’d watched a school bus tilt sideways as the driver struggled to get out of a massive crater in the middle of the road. After the incident, Slater hauled in fifty cubic yards of clay and sand with a dump truck and filled the pit himself.

Like thousands of other secondary roads in the country, Brickyard Road is transforming into gravel and dirt.1 Before my visit, Nancy, Leon’s wife, had emailed me pictures of the street. If the photos had been black and white, it would have been easy to imagine they were from a hundred years ago.

1 In most states, secondary roads are maintained by counties, villages, or townships. Funding comes from property taxes and other revenues. The majority of Americans live and work on secondary roads.

Things were even worse back then. In the summer of 1919, the U.S. Army wanted to see if it was possible to move tanks and trucks from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, a distance of 3,251 miles. More than half the route was dirt track. Slowed by sand and “gumbo mud,” the convoy managed an average speed of 6.07 miles per hour. The journey took two months. A young lieutenant colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower was on the mission; it made him a lifelong advocate for good roads.

After Eisenhower became president, he signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which established funding for what became known as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.2 Thus began decades of work on the 42,000-mile system, which was declared finished only on October 14, 1992, with the completion of a section of I-70 in the Colorado Rockies.

2 Most people today refer to the “interstate highway system,” forgetting that besides helping the economy, its creation was partly military in nature. In the 1950s, officials wanted these roads to be used for the movement of military equipment and personnel, as well as for evacuation in the event of atomic war. In the early years of construction, a small portion of funding came from the defense budget.

Long before Eisenhower, others had pushed for change. In 1880, when the bicycle was becoming popular, roads were crude and even major routes were often impassable. Cyclists formed the League of American Wheelmen to lobby for improvement but saw little success. In the 1920s and 1930s, the mantra became “Get the farmer out of the mud,” and the advent of the automobile brought rural America to the cause.

The pavement on Brickyard Road. All tintype photographs from Michigan by David Emitt Adams

Brickyard was one of those muddy roads. On a map from 1877, it appears as an anonymous dirt route. It was named after a brickmaking operation on land owned by Slater’s great-great-grandfather, John L. Slater, who emigrated from Prussia. The movement didn’t spread out to Michigan until the 1950s. At that time, a hot liquid form of petroleum called bitumen was sprayed on the surface, and crushed stone was spread to a depth of some three quarters of an inch over the soil, which was then compacted. This process is called chip sealing. Slater, born in 1953, remembers the new paving from when he was a child.

The blacktopping of Brickyard Road was an unremarkable event in the history of the betterment of the 2.6 million miles of road that existed in America when Eisenhower made his journey. Now, though, Brickyard is unremarkable for a different reason — it’s one of countless failed roads, ranking at the bottom of the 10-point Pavement Surface Evaluation and Rating scale used by road engineers.

Some experts have concluded that it’s better to “depave” and let failing asphalt roads return to gravel. With budgets tight, their reasoning goes, this would at least provide motorists with a better driving experience than would a broken-down paved road. Also, a gravel road is cheaper to maintain than a paved road. Studies by more than a dozen different agencies around the nation show the range for gravel maintenance costs: from $2,000 to more than $8,000 per mile annually. And for pavement: from $13,000 to $37,000.

Brickyard is among the roads that the Muskegon County Road Commission has slated to be turned to gravel, twenty-eight miles in all. Brunswick Road, which intersects Brickyard about a half-mile north of the Slaters’ house, was the first to go, in 2008. Residents complained bitterly about health issues and dust after it was ground up, so the county halted the depaving. But there’s no money to refurbish all the damaged roads that are paved in name only.

It would be comforting to think of these roads as aberrations that plague one isolated place in economically depressed Michigan. But they’re not. I’ve been road-tripping around the country, shunning interstates, since the Seventies, and I’ve noticed a sharp decline in the quality of our secondary roads — especially over the past ten years. According to TRIP, a nonprofit transportation-research group, more than half of the nation’s major rural routes are in “fair,” “mediocre,” or “poor” condition. We as a nation are on a journey down regression road. Roads symbolize one of the fundamental contracts between a government and its citizens. They are among the most direct and regular relationships people have with the state. If the roads are failing, it means government is failing.

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is the author of ten books, most recently Bringing Mulligan Home. “Snowden’s Box,” which he co-wrote with Jessica Bruder, appeared in the May 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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October 2019