On his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver often takes on important issues—net neutrality, sugar content, climate change. But last night, he touched on a topic that I'm hugely passionate about: America's infrastructure.
Before I came to mental_floss, I was an editor at Popular Mechanics, where I contributed to a year-long investigation of U.S. infrastructure, watching workers lay rebar in the second span of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac, walking along the crumbling locks and dams on the busiest part of the Ohio River in Illinois, and checking out the massive machinery being used to build its replacement in Kentucky (construction began in 1988 and still continues today). I have a lot of photos of myself wearing hard hats.
What PopMech found then—and what's still the case today, as Oliver points out—is that America's infrastructure is in bad shape. Really bad shape. Every year, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases an infrastructure report card. In 2013, the most recent year available, the average grade was D+. Solid waste earned the highest grade, a B-; bridges earned a middling C+; and inland waterways are at a D-.
Aside from the horrifying possibility of a bridge collapse, how might the failure of infrastructure affect you? Let's make an example of inland waterways. Rivers and canals are the unsung heroes of freight transportation: One barge carries enough cargo to fill 15 train cars or 58 tractor trailers. If a lock and dam goes down, all those trucks have to hit the road, causing congestion and pollution.
The problem, according to Oliver, is that "when our infrastructure isn't being destroyed by robots and/or saved by Bruce Willis, we tend to find it a bit boring." Sure, infrastructure isn't necessarily sexy, but, as the host points out, it is important—and pretty interesting. (Just look at all of these awesome bridges!) When I did my reporting, I talked to scientists who are doing all kinds of cool infrastructure-related things, like developing self-healing concrete and polymers for bridges and roads that could repair itself in the event of a crack, self-sensing skins that would alert authorities when cracks occur, and carbon-fiber reinforced polymer jackets that could be retrofitted to concrete columns to keep them from failing.
"Every summer, people flock to see our infrastructure threatened by terrorists or aliens," Oliver says. "But we should care just as much when it's under threats from the inevitable passage of time. The problem is, no one has made a blockbuster movie about the importance of routine maintenance and repair." You can probably guess what happens next. (It involves Edward Norton, Steve Buscemi, and plenty of puns.) Hopefully, Oliver's take on the subject, along with his faux trailer, will help draw attention to this huge problem.