I hope you can excuse me while I depart from my normal faire. I am having a crisis of, well, usefulness. Today I was confronted with people who cannot admit my chosen avocation is anything other than an unaffordable, silly, even criminal waste of resources. I find myself looking at their logic and trying to understand why I cannot see or understand their point of view. I find myself questioning my job, belief system and even my connection to my understanding of what God wants for me in my life.
This is a little longer than usual but, maybe it is a conversation we need to have.
It started as a pretty good day. I was able to do what I do best with a large part of the day. My favorite and most productive time at work is in the recon. No, not a camouflaged romp on a moonless night. This kind of romp allows me to bring my near twenty years of transportation engineering experience, those late nights of study at Clemson and some common sense to your service. Well, your service if you drive. In these romps my tools are a vehicle, a steno pad and my brain, well, my brain attached to my eyes. I ride a state route, look for defects and decide who should fix the problem, when the problem should be fixed and how the problem should be fixed. The when is very important because, as you probably know, we are in a perpetual state of underfunding at the DOT.
Underfunding you say? I heard you clear your throat, look away and wonder if those left-over steak tips in the refrigerator were still edible. Let me stop and tell you a story.
Your gramps was sittin around with grammy a few decades ago and decided his widget business might take off if he could drive a car instead of ridin Daisy, the horse, to the people buying his widgets. He might even sell a few over in Anywhereville and Podunk. It was a few days ride to those places and he might have a real advantage over his competition with some kind of automobile. He also though that he and grammy might even be able to put some of her fried pies in a basket and drive over to the levee for a picnic from time to time.
So grampaw went downtown and bought a Cadillac. Grammy had to dig pretty deep in the cookie jar to pay for the Caddy. She had to dig even further for the oil changes, tune ups and tires which followed. Well, after a while, grampaw had made so much selling his widgets to his new customers in Podunk that he and grammy were able to go to the beach for the first time since he stormed one in Normandy. Before long your daddy came along and he too used the Caddy. He used it to go over to Backwater University and get his BS degree in stuff and things. Your daddy’s degree was another first in your family’s history. He made a good living with that Caddy. He spent his hard-earned money to take care of your grampaw’s gift and was also able to take you to the beach when you were a kid.
A few years ago, he gave you the Caddy. It needed some work on the transmission but, you said the cost was too high. You justified this decision because you had seen the transmission mechanics taking coffee breaks that were too long. You didn’t change the oil because someone on TV told you it wasn’t necessary. They told you that you could save money on oil by using some kind of a fairy dust. You knew your dad and grampaw had conscientiously bought and changed the oil for years but, you liked the idea of something for nothing. Anyway, you had heard those oil change mechanics were sorry, lazy, overpriced. One morning you woke up and needed the Caddy to get to a work meeting over in Podunk. The Caddy smoked and missed. It quit half-way to Podunk. You got fired.
Did some of the story ring true for you? If it did, you are not a bad person. You are really like everybody else when it comes to roads and funding. As long as your road seems to work then you are ok. You don’t think too hard about roads and bridges. Because, after all, some people on the TV have told you road prices are somehow different from milk prices. Yes, I compared roads to milk. Ok, try this little thought experiment with me. If you were to walk into Wal-Mart and demand milk for 1992 prices what would happen? By the way, 1992 was the last time the gas tax was increased. Do you think Wal-Mart would call people who would take you away in a straight-jacket for a nice relaxing night in a rubber room for making that demand?
But, back to my day in the life…
I ate lunch at a fast food establishment known for taking perfectly healthy fish, adding batter and deep-frying anything approaching healthy out of it. By this time, I had four pages of road defects. Unfortunately, some of the defects will have to wait. The trick, art and science of it is which ones? That’s when you really need me. Which defects are the true “widow makers” like a four-inch pavement drop off and which are inconveniences. I guess I should add one more category. Which defects will cost you the most money in the long run if I don’t fix it today?
It was now time for a meeting about a kinda dangerous set intersections next to the interstate. Two nearby truck stops and series of increasingly busy intersecting roads had boogered the exit to the point the witches brew of trucks and cars had begun to boil over. The best way to fix it was to eliminate some of the crossing roads and combine those crossing roads into one with a traffic signal. I was meeting with the local mayor and some county officials. The big question on everyone’s mind was not if a series of very bad truck versus car accidents was about to happen, it was how we would pay for the improvements. I won’t bore you with the details but, we halved the baby.
I must tell you, I worry that the metaphor turns into a real live thing.
After a few more hours and a few more pages, I met with a DOT neighbor about a driveway. He wanted to build a set of storage buildings where an old set was removed by a tornado four or five years back. I wonder how many storage buildings… who could possibly rent all these things? Anyway, this citizen was upset that his driveway must be permitted and built to today’s rules. After explaining that we engineers were an odd sort and when we figured out building something a certain way killed people, we had a strange way of asking people not to build things that way anymore. I went on to explain the people of the great state of Alabama had spoken and they really felt their gas taxes shouldn’t pay for his new driveway which would kill fewer people. My logic apparently escaped him.
Did my logic make any sense to you? Should I make myself a tin-foil hat?
After a few minutes of the citizen snorting and flinging profanities about government bureaucracy, waste and inefficiency, I noticed he had an identity badge for a local utility. Trying another tack, I asked him if his utility, also a monopoly, didn’t have rules about attaching to their services. I then asked if they didn’t learn lessons and change rules from time to time. He conceded both points but, was unmoved by my logic. Somehow a utility was different from a state DOT. I tell you, the only difference I saw was that his pay and benefits were better. Of course he also had better equipment. He also got paid for his overtime… My utility bill has seen numerous increases since 1992 and sure my neighbors and I gripe for a day or two but, that griping doesn’t morph into some kind of philosophical almost religious vendetta against utility companies.
Just tell me, why is a utility rate hike any different from a gas tax increase?
Finally, on my way home, I got the call all transportation workers dread. There had been a fatality on one of my roads. I use the personal pronoun on purpose. When there are accidents, they are accidents on MY roads. I arrived on the scene to take my pictures and do my investigation just as they were removing the victim from the vehicle. Many times there are next of kin there to identify the body. Today was no exception. There is an emotional gravity placed on your shoulders as a transportation professional at these scenes which defies my written explanation.
The fairy dust didn’t work for this victim. The fairy dust didn’t work for more than 100 others today. I am tired of fairy dust. I want my concrete, asphalt, rocks and steel back. I want a group of dedicated professionals, operators and technicians who aren’t treated as pariahs to use those materials to take care of the Cadillac your grandfather gave you.