When the second speaker on my panel of industry experts opened his remarks with a statement about the current pace of change being the most frantic and daunting in our history, the first speaker, still pumped with adrenaline from his 15 minutes of fame, interrupted loudly.
“That’s not true!” he exclaimed. “This rate of change has been going on for decades!”
He continued to make his point without a microphone in a room of two or three hundred people, all of them as stunned as the second speaker at the man’s audacity.
I was stunned, too, and it took a long minute or two for me to remember I was the only person in the room who could do something about the interruption. I did, finally, restore order, much to the collective relief of all those gathered there. But the truth is, the greatest revelation to come from that entire conference, the one that has stayed with me through the years, was the truth uttered by the impolite panelist.
The whirlwind pace of change — in technology, society, economics, science, industry and everything else — has characterized our world throughout the lifetimes of current generations. Each new solution erases the need for the last one and creates challenges that will give birth to the next one.
Keeping this in mind can help you maintain your sanity as the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives fiddle and dance through a third year of debate over a new federal transportation program. You would be fired for doing your job so poorly, but most congressional incumbents will get rehired for as long as they want their jobs. It can make you crazy.
But we can all take heart in the fact that it has ever been thus. Precious little of the support for previous transportation bills stemmed from principled pols voting for a great national vision. Most of them were voting for jobs, for work in their districts, or to swap a vote on this issue for a colleague’s support on some other issue that mattered more.
The ultimate example of compromise in highway legislation is our beloved, now mostly revered, Interstate Highway System. It was the product of one man with a vision and several hundred congressional leaders pursuing baser visions, some in support, some opposed.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Interstate system, Better Roads’ award-winning journalist Tom Kuennen wrote a brilliant retrospective on the subject that revealed, among many other things, that the original pavements were intentionally built for a short, 20-year life. The reason? The original program called for the federal government to build the roads, and for the states to maintain and replace them. The feds traded off service life for maximizing the size of the system with the seemingly certain knowledge that the states would be picking up the tab for the replacement pavement.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, and it’s all happening — or not happening — at the same bewildering speed.