A review of “Asphalt and Politics” by Thomas L. Karnes
By John Janes
According to Thomas L. Karnes in his book “Asphalt and Politics,” in 1756 it took three days for a rider on horseback to go from New York to Philadelphia. His expenses were rather nominal, a few meals and some oats.
On July 7, 1919 a 79 vehicle military convoy departed Washington and traveled 3,251 miles over dirt roads, sand and the occasional hard surface to arrive in San Francisco on September 6, 1919. An original estimate for the design and materials to pave this distance was $10 million.
On August 10, 2005, President George W. Bush signed into law highway legislation (SAFETEA-LU) with guaranteed funding totaling $244.1 billion. My how times have changed, relative to our highways and the resources required for maintaining progress.
“Asphalt and Politics” provides a chronicled examination of the American highway system. Karnes, a retired history professor who taught at Tulane and Arizona State Universities, utilizes extensive research to provide a detailed history of the individuals and events transforming the dirt roads of the 1800s to today?s vast network of super highways.
Karnes brings the history of our nation?s highways to life with anecdotes of various industry pioneers and their contributions. John McAdam is credited with improving load bearing capacity by introducing methods for draining the subsoil, and Thomas Telford improved ride and comfort by utilizing smaller uniform stones sizes at the surface. Serving six presidents, Thomas McDonald was chief of the Bureau of Public Works (originally under the Department of Agriculture) and over his tenure transformed it into what became the Federal Highway Administration on October 15, 1966.
Karnes also references various legislative and financial methods implemented to advance and maintain our highways such as ISTEA, TEA-21, matching funds, Grant
Anticipation Revenue Vehicle (Garvee) bonds, toll lanes and privatization.
The historical accounts in “Asphalt and Politics” effectively demonstrate how our interstate highways have capably served the mail distribution system and military mobilization, and enabled far reaching economic growth throughout countless industries. Those accounts also illustrate the fact that the problems that encumber our industry are nothing new. For example, America”s first super highway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, wasn”t built until the late 1930s, almost 20 years after the first overwhelmingly popular transcontinental military convoy. Today, despite staunch support from the public, the military, and numerous lobbies, progress remains slow as the highway system navigates diverging political agendas and financial challenges.
Karnes devotes a portion of the book to the progress realized in our highway system under the leadership of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower championed highway legislation that committed approximately $27 billion of dedicated funding over a ten year period. His support ultimately produced nearly 50,000 miles of new roads. Karnes’ book shows our current system burdened with traffic congestion, deterioration and a lack of political initiative that craves a unifying vision reminiscent of the Eisenhower era.
While the book is rich with historical detail, it provides limited exploration of potential solutions for solving the various political and financial woes plaguing our system. Karnes repeatedly concedes his aim to delve deeply into events and largely subordinates prescribing solutions to historical facts. In addition, despite the title, Karnes renders minimal commentary on the viscous hydrocarbon that many of us have grown to love—asphalt.
“Asphalt and Politics” paints a broad picture of the complex history of our American highway system and adeptly provides a detailed chronology of industry events, individuals, and issues. In his book, Karnes offers something for everyone interested in the history, politics and economics associated with the highway system. “Asphalt and Politics” is an informative and thorough overview of an important part of American history.
John Janes is Vice President of Supply and Marketing at Associated Asphalt, Inc. in Roanoke, VA.