Friday, July 11, 2014

Move On Down the Road

The second weekend in June, 2014, the $18 million Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) Ohio Street Structure Replacement & Rehabilitation Project closed IL90/94 in downtown Chicago, the heart of the Kennedy Expressway, for the weekend. It was the first of 3 weekend closings that were originally planned. Turns out that it only required 2 weekend closings. Yea! IDOT! This replacement and rehabilitation work is being done in the name of safety and future maintenance efficiency, especially for the 15,300 cars which are estimated to use the Ontario Street westbound ramp on a daily basis.

For those weekend travelers needing to get across the city, the moans and groans caused by the pain of trying to “find an alternate route” rose from the crawling side street traffic as one with the increase in smog.

It’s interesting. For years, I have thought, “Instead of subjecting us all to weeks of lane closures and detours, why not just shut it down and get the work done?” It appears that the decrepitude of our public roads is demanding just such an option. Still, the work and the inconvenience is infuriating. Perhaps that’s because we rarely think about just how much has changed. Come with me on a little historical voyage.

credit: Wilmette, IL Historical Society
This tree indicated by this marker
is not shown at right, but looked similar.
credit: Downes Studio,
Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society

The conclusion of the American Revolution not only confirmed the independence of the 13 former colonies, but also ceded to the emerging nation the territory northwest of the Ohio River.

This fact would seem completely irrelevant, except that it highlighted the needs that began the federal government’s involvement with public roads.

By 1803, as settlement increased and Ohio was admitted as a state, it became apparent that unless something was done, the nation would have states that could only be reached with difficulty, via mostly old Native American or military trails. In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill into law that allocated $30,000 for building what was called The National Road. The road would extend from Maryland, the center of the nation at that time, west to Ohio and beyond. It would move settlers west, but it would also move the goods of traders and farmers to markets in the east.

In 1811, the first construction contracts were awarded. The contractors used state-of-the-art road construction methods. The road was “covered with a very thick layer of nicely broken stone, laid on with great exactness both as to depth and width, and then rolled down with an iron roller, which reduced all to one solid mass. This is a road made for ever” wrote a British visitor to one of the construction sites. The road also incorporated what was then the longest single arch stone bridge in the nation.

Construction reached Vandalia, Illinois in 1839, and although planned to continue to St. Louis, Missouri, that was where America’s first large federal public works project stopped. The thinking was that trains would soon supersede roads.

The young United States of America was ablaze with innovation: canals, steamboats, railroads and train sleeping cars, the cotton gin, cast-steel plow, and Interchangeable parts; then bicycles (yes, bicycles were once a new mode of transportation), and personal automobiles. By 1909, the shift from local and regional markets to national markets had completed itself and the components of the “American System” economic policy were firmly in place. Domestic manufacturing had decreased American dependence on foreign imports and increased wage labor. There was federal commitment to a system of internal improvements (such as roads and canals) which would knit the nation together and be financed by tariff and land sales revenues.

An interesting research project would be to unravel how this national approach to the movement of goods and services became dispersed between a kazillion local entities, sowing the seeds for corruption and neglect by enabling finger-pointing at every level. Whose responsibility are the public roads? “Not mine,” says municipal government, “the county’s responsible for that road.” “Not mine,” says the county, “that’s the state’s problem.” And, as with all things in government today, it goes on and on and on without any effective approach to addressing the redundancy and introduce accountability. Look at the lifespan of the methods used to repair and resurface today’s roads. Who checks that the work was done correctly in the first place and demands redress when it doesn’t meet contractual guarantees? Who, indeed. But, I digress.


Soon after Napoleon took the French throne, a slave revolt broke out in French-controlled Haiti, which cost the French 55,000 soldiers and drained their national coffers. With pending war in Europe, Napoleon was desperate for funds. At the same time, President Thomas Jefferson saw French control over New Orleans as an obstacle to America's westward expansion. James Monroe was sent to France to purchase New Orleans for $3 million. Napoleon countered with an offer to sell the entire Louisiana Territory. On April 30, 1803, the Louisiana Territory was sold to the United States for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States.
Early on, the United States population was located predominantly on the Atlantic coast, with all major population centers on a natural harbor or navigable waterway. Water and river transportation were central to the national economy. Most overland transportation was by horse, which made it difficult to move large quantities of goods. By 1803, travel between the predominately landlocked states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio and the coastal states to the east was by foot, pack animal, or ship.
In 1808, a government-sponsored Report on the Subject of Public Roads and Canals suggested that the federal government should fund the construction of interstate turnpikes and canals. Despite controversy — Anti-federalists opposed this expansion in government power, while others were persuaded by the military and commercial need for overland roads — work began on a National Road to connect the West to the eastern seaboard. Construction on the National Road began in 1815 and by 1818, the road spanned from Cumberland, Maryland to Wheeling, West Virginia (then part of Virginia). Political conflicts prevented further western advance to the Mississippi River, but, the road became the gateway for thousands of westward-bound antebellum settlers.
So, who was building the National Road and all the other roads for that matter? Answer: Corporations. During the early part of the 19th century, these corporations were primarily banks, insurance companies, and turnpike or canal companies established under special state charters. Special charters also were used to incorporate the first railroad corporations in the late 1820s. However, by the late 1840s, the demand for railroad charters became so common that many states enacted a “general law” of incorporation that allowed a railroad to incorporate without a special charter. Enter the age of the Corporation.

“A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law. Being the mere creature of law, it possesses only those properties which the charter of its creation confers upon it, either expressly or as incidental to its very existence. These are such as are supposed best calculated to effect the object for which it was created.”
— Chief Justice Marshall, United States Supreme Court

How the Supreme Court has changed! Yet, as it turns out, the latest debacle surrounding corporate “personhood” was just that, the latest in a long line of efforts to confer the corporation with the rights of individuals. But, I won’t go there — now, anyway — stay tuned. The point is, that although the projects were public monies, accountability for these projects was not held to be a public matter.


The fertile prairie land of the Midwest was settled quickly. Advances in agriculture like John Deere’s steel plow, invented in Ogle County, Illinois, and Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, manufactured in Chicago, made prairie farming profitable, and supported the development of local government entities. In Illinois, these are first state, then county, townships, precincts, cities, towns, villages, and special-purpose districts.

In response to several economic crises brought on by overall economic conditions and the failure of a number of railroad charters, the state imposed debt limits on local government units. In response, local governments created new units in order to bypass debt limits. For example, instead of a city running a park system and a sewer system, separate park districts and sewer districts were created. Each could incur debts up to its own limitation. The result was a tremendous increase in small local government units. Illinois continues to have more than 8,000 local government units. This is the largest number of such entities under a single state government in the U.S. I suppose it is only natural that these units should seek to control a road or two.

The statutes that establish road jurisdiction reads like the rules to a game of Monopoly. And just like in that game, the more “roads” you have, the more money you are eligible for from local taxes, as well as state and federal funds, because jurisdiction carries with it the responsibility for maintenance. Maintaining the national infrastructure is, as it should be, an ongoing budget item at all levels of government. Just wish we got more of our money’s worth.

So. The National Road was the beginning. Enter the Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) in 1893. Followed by the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) in 1905. The profitability of farming depended on moving farm output to market. Getting this output to railways and canals meant getting farmers “out of the mud” so that they had road access to other modes of transport. From there, it’s really an incredible story of technology and vision, and greed. There is a wonderful book, which traces the history of American highways, available free online from the National Archives at this link: .

Fast forward 40 years or so, and lessons learned in World War II by General, then President, Dwight D. Eisenhower about the necessity of being able to move defense forces and materials around the country are a primary source of the existence of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly referred to as the Interstate Highway System.

The rise and fall of American modes of transportation have been stimulated by previously unprecedented technological advancement. Today, the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways is responsible for 1,474 lane miles of pavement, 130 bridges, 332 traffic signals, 5 pumping stations, and 5 maintenance garages. And, that is just under Cook County jurisdiction. Still, the potholes return like the passing of the seasons and the bridges rot away until they can be closed down and replaced. Should I mention that some closings have lasted years without completion of the replacement? Still waiting, huh, Blue Island, Illinois residents?

Automobiles have held sway for nearly 100 years now, bolstered by their ancillary manufacturing and energy industries, plus the occasional government bailout — past and present, not to mention the call of the wild that beats in the American breast to hit the road, Jack! for better or worse. Given the monumental position of automobiles in the economy, I wonder what it will take to enable the ascendency of something new, something even better. Beam me up, Scotty!

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