Icons of infrastructure

From the tall buildings to the endless highways, America’s infrastructure has long been a source of greatness


To all the self-serving politicians and pundits complaining about America’s crumbling infrastructure – the need for walls and bridges and dams so severe as to require trillions in tax dollars lest our great country fail – please go back to your resorts, your offices, your newsrooms and press conferences. Our country has always had a strong foundation, and nothing is going to change that.

Okay, but…

It’s true; some maintenance is needed. Many of our roadways were built before you and I were born, but at least the potholes aren’t too bad. The same can be said for our air traffic control systems. Yes, they need upgrading, but I haven’t seen any planes falling out of the sky because of it.

With a few exceptions now and then, the dams are still making power and the bridges are still standing. America is chugging along just fine, thank you.

I don’t mean to make light of it. We as a nation must continue to improve, expand and repair our infrastructure. But I, like so many of my fellow citizens, expect that the solutions won’t come from dysfunctional, partisan Washington but rather from local and state governments working together with private industry. This is the path forward.

You can call me naïve, but you must then call me hopeful, and proud. Looking back at the accomplishments that our country has made over the years fills me with optimism that the best is yet to come. To illustrate, let’s take a look at some of the more notable infrastructure projects completed over the past century – with a sneak peek at a few of those still in the works.


The spillway for the Oroville Dam, the highest in the United States, failed in February of 2017, requiring the evacuation of 188,000 people. Photo credit: Sr. Photographer, Kelly M. Grow, California Department of Water Resources

Hit the road

In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, promising to build a nationwide, 41,000-mile system of roads and bridges. It’s not yet complete (there’s still some wrangling over a section of freeway in Pennsylvania), but few would disagree that it met and in many ways exceeded the desired outcome, and today accounts for more than 46,000 miles of interstate highways.

Of all the infrastructure projects presented here, this one was easily the biggest game changer for the citizens of the United States.

Here are some statistics for you to consider over your morning coffee, predictions made by the Bureau of Public Roads just a few years into the project of “what it would take” to finish the job:

  • The total amount of dirt and rock excavated would exceed 1.75 cubic miles of dirt and rock, enough to bury Connecticut knee deep (not sure why they picked on the Nutmeg State).

  • Laid end to end, the 50,000 bridges would be long enough to span the Rio Grande River lengthwise (around 1,885 miles).

  • The gravel, aggregate and crushed stone would supply enough material to build a wall 50-ft.-tall and 9-ft.-wide, long enough to circle the planet.

  • The Portland cement needed to pour all those miles of roadway would build 80 Hoover Dams or, if we were so inclined, sidewalks to the moon.

  • The structural steel in the new highway system would be enough to build 170 Empire State Buildings and the rebar enough for 16 coast-to-coast railroad tracks.


Apples to oranges

Note the comparisons to two other significant projects of that time. The Big Apple’s Empire State Building was completed in 1931, just 14 months after breaking ground. Its 3,000 workers fabricated some 60,000 tons of steel, laid 10 million bricks, and cut and lifted 200,000 cubic ft. of limestone and granite.

The 102-story structure stood as the tallest building in the world until 1970, when it was surpassed by another great infrastructure project, the World Trade Center.

Right about the time the Empire State Building’s last rivet was struck (it was made of pure gold), a second Depression-era project got underway. The 726-ft.-tall Hoover Dam required 45 million lbs. of rebar and enough concrete to build a 100-sq.-ft., 2.5-mile-high monolith.

Of the 840 miles of pipe and fittings used in the dam, 582 were needed to remove the enormous heat generated by the 4,360,000 cubic yards of concrete poured during construction, which otherwise would have taken centuries to cool. And even though the contractor was given seven years to complete the project, the dam’s 21,000 workers got it done in just over five. Sadly, 96 of them gave their lives doing so.


A mighty bridge

One year later in 1937, Franklin Delano Roosevelt presided over the dedication of yet another mega infrastructure project, the Golden Gate bridge. It was a good time to be president.

Named by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the seven engineering wonders of the world, the 4,200-ft. span contains 80,000 miles of steel wire, enough to circle the planet three times. The cable “spinning” was done onsite by the John A. Roebling’s Sons Co., the same firm that made the cables used in the Brooklyn Bridge 52 years earlier.

The company had to develop a new construction process to meet the tight, 14-month deadline. It was successful – the cables were completed in just six months, well ahead of target.

Unlike the Hoover Dam, most of the Golden Gate Bridge was funded through a local bond initiative, with area residents even putting their homes up for collateral.

Not so with another of the seven civil engineering wonders, the Panama Canal. After France dropped $260 million and 20,000 lives into the project during the late 1800s (and subsequently abandoned it), the United States gave it a go: in August of 1914, $370 million, 10 years and 5,600 lives later, the giant locks opened for the first time. Unfortunately, the inauguration ceremony had to be cut short, due to the start of World War I.


Today’s projects

The list goes on. The 85-mile long Delaware Aqueduct, currently the world’s longest tunnel. The Tennessee Valley Authority with its 16 dams, five nuclear power plants and 17,000 miles of electrical transmission lines. Boston’s Big Dig. The SR 99 tunnel in Seattle, care of Bertha, the once-stuck tunnel borer. Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz stadium, the US Bank sports complex in Minneapolis and the AT&T facility in Texas – all massive projects costing more than $1 billion (by comparison, the price tag for Arizona’s University of Phoenix stadium was only $456 million – now, if only those Cardinals can pull off a Super Bowl win).

There are literally hundreds more infrastructure accomplishments, each making a significant positive impact on the local and state economies as well as enriching the lives of the millions who worked on them. To paraphrase vice-president Joe Biden, infrastructure is a “big f**ing deal.”

There’s also been some refurbishing of existing infrastructure. The Panama Canal was recently made bigger to the tune of $5 billion. Thankfully, the United States didn’t foot the entire bill this time.

There’s the Dulles Transit Extension and the New York City Subway Renovation. And the Delaware Aqueduct sprung a leak during the 1990s, and the 2.5-mile, $1 billion repair may turn out to be a bigger project than the original.

And speaking of water, the Southwestern United States has a shortage. A big one. That was one of the reasons for building the Hoover Dam – to create Lake Mead, which supplies electricity as well as much of the region’s water. But thanks to a decade-old drought, the reservoir has shrunk to about one third its original size. Now what?

California has responded by building desalination plants. From Diablo Canyon to Santa Catalina Island, the state has nine plants in operation, with another 11 in the planning stages. As with the $1 billion Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant that opened in 2015, each is a massive infrastructure project that will not only spawn thousands of manufacturing jobs, but will solve a serious problem.

That’s what infrastructure does. Let’s get building.

U.S. Department of Transportation

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