Book Review

Investigation of America’s troubled infrastructure still rings true today

By Donna Bruno
Posted 5/22/24

I recently revisited this book, originally written in 2014, by Bob Herbert, former opinion columnist for …

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Book Review

Investigation of America’s troubled infrastructure still rings true today


‘Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America’
By Bob Herbert

I recently revisited this book, originally written in 2014, by Bob Herbert, former opinion columnist for The New York Times. For his research he traveled around the country, where he found glaring problems that had remained unaddressed for years.

One chapter focuses on the collapse of the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River, plunging multiple cars with their occupants inside seven to eight stories down. For many years, officials knew that this bridge was in bad shape. Official reports showed it had been poorly maintained and steadily deteriorating. Inspectors declared it was structurally deficient. Despite repeated warnings, officials continued to treat the bridge as safe. Critical work that should have been done was postponed again and again.

There were other such instances of bridge collapses, including the Mianus River Bridge in Greenwich, Conn., and The Scholastic Creek Bridge in Amsterdam, N.Y., to name only a few, caused by design flaws, poor maintenance, lousy upkeep, and repairs put off for another day.

This reminds me of both the Mt. Hope and the Washington bridges in Rhode Island, the latter currently undergoing replacement, the former built to century-old standards that may no longer be adequate for today’s traffic. Other blatant infrastructure issues are roads and highways in dire disrepair, which we certainly know as we travel over this region’s bumpy and heavily patched roads.

Herbert also warns of wasteful, overburdened, and increasingly decrepit water and sewer systems that in some cases date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. He predicts that a haphazard and unreliable system of electrical power is so hobbled by delayed maintenance to require more than $1 to 2 trillion to bring it up to 21st-century standards by 2030.

In addition, he points out an outdated air traffic control system that keeps passengers bogged down with costly and nerve-wracking delays. As I write this, I am waiting to leave for a delayed flight that I should have been on two days ago!

The author’s suggestions include rebuilding the infrastructure, which will also create millions of jobs and establish an economy on a sounder, more competitive footing. It is the quickest way to put large numbers of people to work, and the return for each dollar invested in infrastructure renewal is significantly greater than all other investments in the nation’s economy.

There are other worthwhile chapters on joblessness, public schools, and costs of war. As for schools, cuts have diminished the core American value that each individual should have the opportunity to realize his/her potential, but this traditional pathway to upward mobility is closing for a number of Americans in low and middle-class families. So is the disappearance of the dream of owning a home.

Herbert insists that the U.S. “needs to be reimagined.” Improvement for the infrastructure problem may only come with a true visionary like Dwight D. Eisenhower, who outspent even FDR in spending on public works. His highway system was the “greatest public works project in history, dwarfing even Egypt’s Pyramids, the Panama Canal, and China’s Great Wall.”

One of the causes of our problems, he writes, is the extreme imbalance in political power. He urges that each individual become involved in citizens’ groups, highlighting a Jessie Ramsey in Pittsburg, who with her colleagues realized success in reclaiming schools from corporate-style reformers.

However, strong leadership is needed to affect fundamental societal change. He concludes that, “If our nation is to be changed for the better, ordinary citizens will have to intervene aggressively in their own fate.”

Donna Bruno is a prizewinning author and poet recently recognized with four awards by National League of American Pen Women.

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