What Paul Krugman, Rachel Maddow, and the press corps don't understand about gravel roads.

Media criticism.
Aug. 16 2010 6:24 PM

Paved and Confused

What Krugman, Maddow, and the press corps don't understand about gravel roads.

A paved road. Click image to expand.
Some states probably overbuilt their roads systems

USA Today was among the first to sound the alarm that the nation's paved roads were ripped up and turned to gravel in a Feb. 4 piece hedlined"Tight Times Put Gravel on the Road."Bloomberg BusinessWeek got its piece of the story in April with "In North Dakota, a Rebirth of Gravel Roads,"and the Wall Street Journal contributed "Roads to Ruin: Towns Rip Up the Pavement" on July 17.

Although none of these stories exaggerated the paved-to-gravel devolution of some of America's back roads, that's not the way two of the country's top media liberals read them. The New York Times' Paul Krugman, obviously riffing off the Journal coverage, labeled the downgrading of U.S. roads as a metaphorical harbinger of the nation's decline in his Aug. 8 column.

"America is now on the unlit, unpaved road to nowhere,"wrote Krugman.

The next night, Rachel Maddow echoed Krugman on her MSNBC show, specifically citing the Journal story, calling gravelization a "wacky Luddite solution."

"We are literally unpaving the roads," Maddow exclaimed.

Public road and street milage in the United States.

As long as she insists on being literal about it, Maddow must concede that the number of miles of road being unpaved is trivially low. By USA Today's count, 100 miles in Michigan, three miles in Tuscarora State Forest, Pa., and 11 miles in Hancock County, Ind., were unpaved over the last two years. Add to that number the 10 miles of roads in Stutsman County, N.D., that the BusinessWeek story reported were scheduled for shredding and the 100 miles of unpaving performed in South Dakota last year reported in the Wall Street Journal, and you've got just 224 miles of demoted road.


If we continue converting paved road into gravel road at the rate reported in the three stories cited above, we'll eliminate all 2.7 million miles of the nation's paved roads in about, oh, 24,000 years.

So why the pundit panic? Yes, it's true that some jurisdictions are having trouble keeping roads in good repair because gas-tax revenues, which pay for road construction and maintenance, have dropped, thanks to motorists driving more fuel-efficient vehicles and logging fewer miles. It's also true that voters are routinely voting against new taxes to build and maintain roads. And it's also true that road-maintenance costs are growing.

But the long-term road trend—unacknowledged in the stories—is that local, state, and federal governments have been on a paving binge for the last 50 years. According to federal government statistics, the country had 1.23 million miles of paved road and 2.31 million miles of unpaved road in 1960. By 2008, that ratio had flipped—2.73 million miles of paved road versus 1.32 million miles of unpaved. In other words, in a half century the infrastructure gained 1.5 million miles of paved road.

In only two reporting periods between 1960 and 2008 did the number of U.S. paved miles decline. In 1993, they dropped 25,000 from the previous year, and in 2004, they fell by 34,000. This unpaving failed to disturb pundits back then—or, I should say, I can't find any pundits bemoaning the loss of paved road back then in Nexis.

When a road gets unpaved, there's usually a good reason for it. The Wall Street Journal waits until the final paragraphs of its story to explain that Highway 10—the North Dakota road that's being unpaved and is the peg for its article—was made redundant in the 1950s by the construction of Interstate 94, which parallels it. Traffic on Highway 10 proceeded to fall and fall until the thoroughfare "became a lazy backcountry road dotted with abandoned farmsteads," the Journal reports.



The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The Feds Have Declared War on Encryption—and the New Privacy Measures From Apple and Google

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You

It spreads slowly.

These “Dark” Lego Masterpieces Are Delightful and Evocative


Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.


Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Activists Are Trying to Save an Iranian Woman Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?