Public Works Departments – The Miracle Workers


Many know The Miracle Worker as an acclaimed three-act play that premiered on Broadway in October 1959. It’s based on the true story of Helen Keller, a blind and deaf girl from Alabama and Anne Sullivan, a Bostonian, who teaches her language. Anne, or Annie, is also blind. The Kellers spoiled an undisciplined Helen out of pity and hire Annie to teach her. Patty Duke played Helen and Anne Bancroft played Annie. The two later starred in the 1962 movie with the same title.

Fast forward to another spring in the Midwest. The freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw cycle has taken a toll on anything asphalt- or concrete-based. The cycle does not discriminate – highways, byways, one-ways, and alleys are fair game. The result? Behold, the nasty pothole, some seemingly deep enough to hold a compact car for ransom. Yep, spring is here and public works directors and street maintenance workers are challenged to do their best. Miracle workers, they are.

Today’s city engineers or public works directors may have names like Helen or Anne. Some carry the P.E. designation as a Professional Engineer, licensed by a state board of registration. Other pioneering ladies worked their way up the ranks to become public works directors without the P.E. designation. Less than 15 percent of all P.E.’s are female and less than nine percent are public works directors. The numbers for both are growing, thanks to STEM initiatives (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) at earlier ages. Come spring, P.E.’s, public works directors, and maintenance workers are united in their fight against pot holes. Miracle workers, they are.

Some communities and states battle pot holes with levity. Take Michigan and Detroit as examples. Their punchlines include:
-Dodging potholes in Michigan: A Michigan Sport
-Breaking Fake News: The Lost City of Atlantis found in a Detroit pothole
-Five Seasons in Michigan (Winter, Potholes, Spring, Summer, and Fall)
-Step-by-step guide to hitting a pothole:
1. Hit pothole
2. Death grip steering wheel
3. Squeeze eyes shut
4. Pray for your life
5. Open eyes carefully
6. Turn off music
7. Drive silently to destination

A report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers shows 43 percent of U.S. roads are in poor or mediocre condition. According to the society, the vast majority of roads in need of maintenance tend to be urban and rural collector roads, meaning low-to-moderate capacity routes which move vehicles from local streets to more major ones. Motorists spend nearly $130 billion annually on extra repairs to vehicles and operating costs due to deteriorating roads. Ouch! U.S. roadways have been underfunded for many years and the price tag to address the backlog is likely over one trillion dollars. The bulk of the backlog involves repairing existing roads, not building new ones.

Enacted in November 2021, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides $550 billion through fiscal year 2026 in new federal infrastructure investments, including roads, bridges, mass transit, water infrastructure, resilience, and broadband. Resilience? Resiliency and patience are at a premium. Hopefully Wisconsin’s St. Croix Valley will benefit from federal infrastructure funds.

Back to Helen and Anne, the P.E. and public works director. Street departments in 2023 face daunting tasks. They do more with less, sometimes patching potholes that were repaired days and weeks earlier. Wish them well. Miracle workers, they are.