How Roman Roads Can Reshape America
Pompeii, potholes, and the need for a comprehensive new approach to American infrastructure
POMPEII, Italy — It’s been two thousand years and we’re still dealing with potholes.
That was my thought as I stared at the perfectly preserved stone roads in Pompeii. The well-used path from one of the city’s gates towards the commercial district had deep grooves worn in the Roman paving stones from decades of wagons and chariots.
This continued everywhere in the city, and it was easy to see where the high-use commercial traffic occurred versus the more intact roads of the residential neighborhoods.
One can only imagine the complaints from Pompeii’s denizens about the increasingly deteriorating state of the roadways. Of course, these concerns became somewhat less urgent once Vesuvius blew onto the scene. However, wandering the city — complete with sidewalks and crosswalks — led me to reflect on the infrastructure challenges facing the US and how little things have changed some two millennia later.
The Roman Empire used a familiar approach to building and maintaining its road network. The central government, often using military labor, constructed these marvels of engineering. The United States, some two thousand years later, does something similar with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers building all manner of impressive infrastructure projects. The feds also often fund the initial buildout of roads and highways thanks to enormous projects like the Eisenhower Interstate System and one-off funding bills like the 2009 Stimulus Bill and the more recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.
Like us, the Romans were happy to fund the initial build-out of roadworks. But, the responsibility largely fell to local provinces and even individual landowners when it came to maintenance.
This landowner-reliant system, in particular, isn’t far removed from the responsibilities some city dwellers face today - think of homeowners shoveling snow from their sidewalks or clearing fire hydrants. While we’re not laying down gravel or patching up potholes on the roads outside our homes, these small acts of local maintenance are a nod to an age-old tradition of community involvement in public works.
And though the feds might come in and drop millions on new or updated highways, we leave it up to the states to maintain them.
The Romans understood something still true today: infrastructure is as much about maintenance as construction. Building a road, a bridge, or an aqueduct is only the beginning. Keeping it functional, safe, and reliable for decades is a never-ending task that requires a cooperative effort between those at the top and those on the ground.
With US roads and bridges often constructed by the lowest bidder, building something for the long term is not necessarily in their best interests. As a result, modern streets face continual deterioration within a decade or two, while some Roman roads are still used today.
The rapid movement of goods and services is fundamental to a functioning economy, and the benefits of such projects often greatly exceed the initial costs. Even the most rabid libertarian will acknowledge that infrastructure projects are often beneficial to the public good to such an extent that it makes sense for the government to collect taxes and make outlays to build them.
High-end roadworks are perhaps the greatest symbol of prosperity, while roads falling into disrepair are the ultimate symbol of a fallen empire.
Failing roadworks not only costs businesses money through slower distribution of goods and increased wear and tear on vehicles, but it also costs the government money through reduced tax revenue due to lower economic production.
The budget for the U.S. military is approaching one trillion dollars per year, funding everything from soldier salaries to the construction of billion-dollar ships, far-flung military bases, and everything in between.
Logistics is the base of any military operation, and ours is no different. Without resupply ships or port stops, the Navy couldn’t operate. Our ability to provide aerial refueling and heavy lift capabilities allows us to project force around the world with ease. In a way, our fleets of cargo planes like the C-130 and C-17 are the modern Roman roadways.
But logistics matter at home as well. We could generate at least as much economic utility and national benefit from a similarly structured and funded infrastructure plan. Senators and congressmen are forever angling to have military funding allocated to their districts but aren’t nearly as worried about building highways and byways.
With a comprehensive nationwide roadway strategy akin to that used to build our military, we could take lessons from the Roman Empire and ensure our economic might is as dominant as our military's.
A national project to ensure well-maintained, high-speed highways with consistent lane markings and signage — as well as easy-to-access rest areas and truck stops — would go a long way toward improving our ability to compete domestically and abroad.
We also need to figure out how to avoid the red tape and political infighting that dooms some of our most ambitious ideas. A high-speed train project in California is such a farce that SNCF, the French national railroad — no stranger to bureaucratic battles and fights with labor unions — gave up trying to build it for us and went to Morocco, where things are less politically dysfunctional.
The situation is echoed across the country, where ambitious ideas become mired in the bureaucratic bog, fighting other priorities for funding or simply expanding their scope so far as to become unworkable.
SNCF dropped the California project in 2011, while its Moroccan bullet train opened in 2018. Meanwhile, not a single mile of high-speed rail has been laid in The Golden State 15 years after voters first approved the project.
In 2016, then Volvo Cars USA CEO Lex Kerssemakers exclaimed to Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles at the time: “It can’t find the lane markings!” He was frustrated with the poor condition of the city’s roads, resulting in subpar performance from his company’s autonomous development vehicles. When asked what the government could do to help spur self-driving car innovation, his surprisingly straightforward answer was, “You need to paint the bloody roads here!”
The potential of autonomous vehicles for improved economic production is massive, but poorly marked and maintained roads are a significant challenge. Rather than pouring billions into clean energy programs of questionable utility, the money would be better spent improving the country’s roadways — possibly improving fuel economy and reducing the premature retirement of vehicles shaken to bits by rough rides.
Well-marked lane lines seem like something that should be easily addressed and kept up to date, but as anyone who has driven on the 405 in Los Angeles or any highway in New York City can tell you, it’s apparently too much to ask.
The Romans knew what we seem to have forgotten: roads are the key to prosperity.
In many ways, little has changed in two thousand years. We still have potholes and challenges maintaining our roads.
We still have a significant need for high-quality infrastructure to encourage economic growth and efficiency. And we still have to balance the initial funding of construction with maintenance costs.
Federal funding of highways is great, but we need a more consistent and predictable way to maintain said highways. Relying on individual states for maintenance doesn’t appear to work particularly well.
We need an infrastructure plan that attacks the issue like we would attack a military logistical challenge. We must consider this an Apollo project for the 21st century: an ambitious, all-hands-on-deck effort to build the most impressive, technologically advanced roadway network the world has ever seen. If we can put a man on the moon, we can surely figure out how to build and maintain our highways, can’t we?