Dan McNichol, author and advocate for America’s infrastructure, recently took a 5,000-mile tour — called Low & Slow Across America: A Road Trip through the Nation’s Public Works… in a 1949 Hudson — to gain insight on how department of public works (DPW) heads are funding and executing improvements to infrastructure. Both the American Public Works Association (APWA) and Engineering News Record (ENR) sponsored the tour.

Within minutes of pulling into gas stations, McNichol and his creaky, 66-year-old Hudson, which he calls Mrs. Martin, roused the interest of bystanders and gave him the chance to plainly illustrate his mission coast-to-coast in the haggard sedan.

“I would be filling up my tank at the gas station, and people would come up and talk to me about the car,” says McNichol, the best-selling author of “The Roads that Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System.” “I would explain to them that America’s infrastructure is as old and rusty and energy defunct as my car. They would instantly get it, and many times, thank me for doing this.”

This was the second time McNichol, a Boston native, took an extensive tour across the country to evaluate U.S. cities’ infrastructure. During the Low & Slow tour and last year’s Dire States journey, McNichol found that the DPW directors that have seen the most success in revamping infrastructure communicate their message to community members and find creative ways to fund their projects.

“After touring the country for a few years now, I see that these ballot initiatives are the real stopgap measure for funding,” McNichol says. “I think it’s all based on creativity, but I think it’s more old-school. It’s about educating and advocating and politicking to get these initiatives on the ballot. If taxpayers know that it’s (tax dollars) going towards the roads, they’re much more likely to vote ‘yes.’”

In Phoenix, a proposed .3-cents sales tax increase through Proposition 104, which would add billions of dollars to transportation in the city, is one example of rallying support and data for voters to consider. Phoenix’s department of public works officials used a truck equipped with video recording and lasers to survey much of the roadway work needed across the area.

“It showed the deplorable conditions,” McNichol says. “I found it fascinating that they used empirical data to get that ballot initiative off the ground. The former secretary of transportation (Mary Peters) also gave an impassioned speech to the city council to get the ballot initiative up and going.”


City leaders offering  “campaign-like” proposals to voters can have major influence, McNichol says. He adds that mayors and DPW heads aggressively pursuing grant dollars also makes the difference in funding critical infrastructure projects. For example, Rockville Centre, N.Y., where Mayor Francis Murray and Harry Weed, superintendent of the city’s public works department, worked together to compete for grant funding to add to the city’s floodplain area, which was hit hard by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.

“They had some remarkably stiff competition, but these guys had a plan and won,” he says. “It takes a lot of courage as a mayor to go ahead and invest in your city’s infrastructure. It’s much more than just filling potholes.”

Mayor Murray also invested in the village’s downtown thruway — Main Street ‑ that helped usher in business and new residents, increasing the corridor’s occupancy from about 80 percent to the upper 90s, McNichol says.

“These folks are looking for the solutions and finding them,” he says. “They hold it all together with nailing wire.

They come up with creative ways to fund. They’re understaffed, but when you look at fire and police — the core services cities and counties provide — public works is the third leg to the stool people don’t know exists. They’re the first responders, and they’re so vital.”

McNichol, along with Martin, will share more about the tour during the APWA’s International Public Works Congress & Exposition, taking place Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, at the Phoenix Convention Center. 


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