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.

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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.