True Grit

By Kirk Landers, Editor Emeritus[email protected]

The first road construction project I visited as a journalist was located in a rural area, far from the graft and corruption of any big city, in a part of the country where people like their taxes low and their politicians morally upright and fiscally conservative.

The project was the rebuilding of about a half-mile of county road by an agency crew. The crew was impressive, creating a flawless base and subbase that would be topped by two inches of asphalt the next day.

As we watched, it slowly dawned on me that this county road spur connected a single residence to the main road. By coincidence, the residence was a farm belonging to a county commissioner who had the political wiles to get his driveway designated as a county road and the chutzpah to have the county taxpayers rebuild it for him.

I’m fairly sure the commissioner ran for office on a platform of fiscal responsibility since the people of the area would elect nothing less to public office. And if he’s still alive today, I’m sure he abhors the free spending policies at all levels of government, the public debt, and the other signs of our decaying moral fiber.

I’ve told this story to many people in the construction industry over the years. It always draws a sardonic laugh, often followed by similar yarns.

Questionable use of public money in road infrastructure happens almost everywhere sooner or later. While outright fraud is, hopefully, much rarer today, acts of stupidity and reckless disregard for the public good are all around us. Every road manager has stories of elected officials taking money from roads to spend on trendier things, rationalizing that the economic impact of the road cuts won’t be felt until the elected official has moved on to higher office and someone else has to deal with the problem.

One ironic affect of this is that highway contractors and road agency professionals tend to have almost Libertarian attitudes about government (small government is good, no government is better), even though they work for government entities.

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Their disillusionment — your disillusionment — is understandable, especially in these nervous times of economic stress, skeletal budgets, and partisan bickering, often over issues of no real consequence to the future of the country, the state or the community. What is the incentive for a contractor to exceed quality specifications on a new pavement, or the agency pavement engineer to make system-wide interventions with the right treatment at the right time when the people who bless the budgets have as their focus getting the right sound bite at the right time and have no interest in good governance beyond a snappy slogan or two?

And yet, the overwhelming majority of road contractors and highway agency professionals bring everything they have to the job every day. Concrete and asphalt producers take painstaking efforts to achieve quality and consistency in mixes. Paving crews take pride in their production rates and quality measurements. Agency pros get deep personal satisfaction from doing the best they can with the public’s money.

I don’t know why you are like that, but I’ve seen the phenomenon before. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, young American soldiers serving in Vietnam were ridiculed by their civilian peers at home, resented by career soldiers in their own army, and regarded by the general public back home as drug abusers. But they went out and did their jobs every day whether they thought the war was winnable or not, whether they believed in it or not. And when their time was up, the ones who survived went home quietly and did the best they could to get on with their lives.

These are the best examples I know of true grit. Vietnam era soldiers and road professionals. I don’t have a higher compliment to pay you, so I’ll just end by saying “thanks.” For all of us. v