How to Fix a Country in 12 Days
The I-95 Playbook for Building Things in America
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Hi friends 👋,
Happy Tuesday! America is on a roll.
Russia is a mess. India is a friend. Manufacturing is booming. Inflation is cooling. The economy is strong, despite reports of its demise. Fourth of July is coming up. And my home city, Philadelphia, just reopened I-95 in 12 days.
Let’s keep the momentum rolling. Let’s build things. Philly just wrote the playbook.
Let’s get to it.
How to Fix A Country in 12 Days
I can’t really start writing an essay until I’m under intense time pressure.
Every week, without fail, I try to come up with an idea on Monday, stare at my screen, pace back and forth, go for a run, scroll Twitter, listen to podcasts and read articles for *~inspiration~*, stare at my screen some more, open up a Google Doc and put [Title to Come] at the top, set the font to Spectral, font size to 18, bold it, then go back to Spectral 11 regular to write [Title Image to Come] on the next line, hit enter a couple times, start writing a few sentences to see if anything sticks, delete them, get up, pace, run, and repeat.
Then, magically, as normal peoples’ clocks wind down to Beer O’Clock on Friday afternoon, inspiration strikes. For the next ~60 hours, the hours that normal people spend hanging out with friends and family and relaxing and stuff, I write like a man possessed. Words flow from my fingers like wine and flock to my screen like the Salmon of Capistrano. By Monday morning (or Tuesday, this summer), I’ve somehow written like 8,000 words, I make that [Title Image], hit send, and start the whole process again. Time pressure is good.
So I wasn’t surprised at all to see my home state, Pennsylvania, absolutely thrive under self-imposed time pressure. They fixed I-95, served up Dalessandro’s-steak-sized heaps of civic pride, and laid down a template to fix pretty much everything that ails the country, all in 12 days.
It’s no secret that America can’t build things as fast as we used to. Americans built the Empire State Building in just 410 days; NYC’s Second Avenue Subway project, California’s High-Speed Rail, and Boston’s Big Dig have missed their timelines by decades and their budgets by tens of billions of dollars.
Today, we find ourselves in a weird situation in which the federal government has dedicated nearly $2 trillion to building stuff across the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), but environmental reviews, community meetings, and layers and layers of cruft built up in federal, state, and local permitting and approval processes threaten the ability of those dollars to make meaningful improvements in reasonable timeframes. John Podesta, a senior advisor to the Biden White House on clean energy, put it bluntly: “We got so good at stopping projects that we forgot how to build things in America.”
Ezra Klein has been flagging this issue vociferously: getting bills passed and budgets approved means nothing if we’re not able to build, a sentiment that California Governor Gavin Newsom echoed frustratedly in a recent interview with Klein. As part of the IRA, the federal government makes milestone-based payments, awarding funds as projects complete various stages in order to incentivize states to move quickly and efficiently. And slow states like California miss out on that sweet, sweet federal money. “We’re going to lose billions and billions of dollars in the status quo,” Newsom told Klein. “We’re not getting the money because our rules are getting in the way.”
There’s a path by which California and states across the nation try to fix the problem slowly, snipping at red tape here and there as the political process allows. That’s going to take too long; IT’S already TIME TO BUILD.
Of course, it’s possible to do things more quickly. All it would require is copying the process — or, rather, lack of process — currently unfolding in Philadelphia.
Simply cutting out the process works in rebuilds. A concentrated group of people want their highway back more than they want a new thing, loss aversion and all that, and disaster brings the attention and will needed to push things through. Even California was able to rebuild quickly after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, reopening the Santa Monica Freeway in just six months.
But to build new things more quickly, we need to somehow generate the activation energy required to brush aside all of the bullshit de novo, without the assistance of an acute catastrophe. And for that, it’s not the lack of process that other states should steal from Pennsylvania, but the process itself, the one Governor Josh Shapiro used to generate so much enthusiasm and pride around building a stretch of road less than half-a-football-field long. As we say here:
Over the past two weeks, Pennsylvania turned an infrastructure project into a sporting event. It livestreamed construction. It made heroes of tradespeople. It brought in local sponsors. It took the internet’s blessing and curse – its ability to firehose attention onto seemingly small things – and used it to its advantage.
It was a great first step, and a hint of the way we should build things in this country: as a competitive sport for which people feel as much local pride as they do for their football or basketball teams.
A big part of the reason America can’t build like we used to is that we’re victims to the tyranny of the minority. A small group of people with strong opinions, and a lot of free time, can block things that are supported by the majority of the population. The people who are willing to show up to community meetings have an outsized say in what gets done, because they really want to stop each new thing, whereas most people kind of want each new thing to happen.
If you’d tried to organize a community meeting to stop the I-95 construction, though? You would have been booed out of the city like Santa Claus. No one is better at passionately arguing about small, meaningless trivia than a sports fan.
Treating construction projects like sporting events could overcome the tyranny of the minority by creating thousands of passionate pro-building fans in each city and state in this great nation. Already, states are competing for federal money, we just need to add all of the other things that make competition so intense. Fans, streams, sponsors, drafts, trades, arguments, identity, time pressure.
In the process, we might not only solve our building problem, but knock out a few others as well. Not enough skilled tradespeople? Let’s make the great ones celebrities, and make cities compete over them with money and glory. Local news is dying? Let’s give local news something big they can cover with the same local know-how they cover sports.
Our inability to build big things quickly starting right around 1971 is a favorite topic of seemingly every smart person out there. Patrick Collison has a page on his blog dedicated to Fast projects, like the Empire State Building, with a conclusion that “The physical infrastructure projects enumerated above occurred before 1970 to a disproportionate degree.” Noah Smith has called America The Build-Nothing Nation.
People much smarter than me, people who actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to policy and politics, have devised brilliant plans to get us building again. Well-meaning Governors have tried to push permitting reform through the established channels. The White House is incentivizing states to build with cold-hard cash. None of it has worked. The NIMBYs are still winning.
The smart plans are failing. We need a much dumber plan.
Good news: I have one. I think we can fix this country, and I think Philly just showed us how.
So what did Philly do? A little background, for those of you who haven’t been following along as closely.
The I-95 Rebuild Timeline
On June 11th, a tanker truck carrying gasoline caught fire under an 1-95 overpass, causing the northbound lanes to collapse and damaging the southbound lanes. The collapse closed a nine-mile stretch of I-95 between the Betsy Ross Bridge and PA 63.
I can describe it all I want, but to really understand it, you gotta hear it from a local:
If you’re not from the area like that guy, you need to know that 1-95 near Philly is the absolute worst. I’ll go miles out of my way to avoid driving on it. But it’s one of the main arteries into and out of the city, and the only thing worse than having I-95 is not having I-95.
When I first heard about the collapse on Twitter, my assumption was that it would take months or years to fix I-95. I wasn’t alone. Pretty much every tweet I read about the collapse guessed that it would be a very long time until I-95 was returned to its former ignominy.
Even Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro said, on June 12th, that the complete rebuild would take “a number of months,” but added that officials were looking at “interim solutions to connect both sides of I-95 to get traffic through the area.” That same day, Governor Shapiro issued a disaster declaration in order to access state and federal emergency funds and get building.
I’m not sure when it occurred to Governor Shapiro – probably some time before this picture of him surveying the damage from a police helicopter was taken on the evening of the 11th – but that tanker truck had given him an opportunity.
If he seized it, the Governor could catapult himself into the national spotlight and into Philadelphians’ hearts.
And he friggin’ seized it, alright. Over the past two weeks, the Governor has been firing like Lenny Dykstra, Randall Cunningham, Moses Malone, Eric Lindros, Darren Daulton, Ron Hextall, Allen Iverson, Brian Dawkins, Dr. J, Vince Papale, and Joel Embiid rolled into one.
On Monday, he freed up $7 million in state resources to cover immediate costs. On Tuesday, Mayor Pete came to town, and the federal government committed to covering the costs of the repair. By Wednesday, the Federal Highway Administration had chipped in $3 million in emergency funding. The government had Infrastructure Dollars to spend, and doggonit, we were gonna spend ‘em.
Experts told the Governor that pre-construction demolition would take a week. The “crews working literally 24/7” got it done by Thursday.
With demolition completed, attention turned to the rebuild. Workers would use Ultra-Lightweight Foamed Glass Aggregate (UL-FGA) produced by local Delco company AeroAggregates to fill the gap where the bridge collapsed, creating a temporary roadway that would allow traffic to continue to flow on I-95. Buy local.
For an infrastructure project, things were moving at lightspeed. So on Thursday, Shapiro delivered his masterstroke:
PennDOT (Pennsylvania Department of Transportation) put up a livestream of the construction. Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in.
Senator Bob Casey tweeted that he was watching and used the opportunity to highlight the popular Philadelphia-based show, Abbott Elementary (created by Quinta Brunson).
On Saturday, Xfinity Live!, the big sports bar by the stadiums where the Eagles, Sixers, Phillies, and Flyers play, offered $.95 wings while they played the livestream next to the US Open and the Phillies game.
The Phillies themselves got in on the action, throwing the livestream up on the Phanavision at Citizens Bank Park.
In that tweet, and many others, Shapiro took the opportunity to call out the “hardworking men and women of the Philadelphia Building Trades who are working their tails off to rebuild I-95.” He thanked them for working 24/7 while he was in his office, for working over the weekend while many Philadelphians went to the shore, for working on Father’s Day. He reflected some of the shine he was getting back on them, turning the workers into local heroes.
Spreading the love has been a hallmark (keystone?) of this whole operation.
On Saturday the 17th, President Biden came to town and, after a helicopter tour with the Governor, told the gathered crowd that, “I’ve directed my team … to move heaven and earth to get this done as soon as humanly possible. There’s no more important project right now in the country as far as I’m concerned.”
When the President handed the mic to the Governor, Shapiro took the opportunity to thank everyone. He praised the President, his team, the Mayor of Philadelphia, the trade unions, PennDOT, the first responders, the firefighters, and the police, among others. There was a lot of love to go around, and he sent it around the horn.
During his speech, the Governor dropped some killer soundbites:
“Pennsylvania can do big things.”
“Our innovation meets our grit, and we work together to get this done.”
“Folks here in Philly have a renewed sense of civic pride.”
“We love our Philly sports. This is our championship.”
“We will have I-95 reopened in the next two weeks.”
That crashing sound you hear is me running through a wall wearing an Eagles jersey, Phillies hat, and Sixers shorts. Let’s go.
By last Wednesday, the 21st, the Governor set a new target, tweeting a gif saying, “I-95 REOPENING THIS WEEKEND.”
That night, local favorite Wawa stopped by the construction site to drop off hoagies for the workers and get a shoutout from the new-celeb Governor.
The next night, Starr Restaurants, a popular Philadelphia-based restaurant group, provided catering and got the same treatment.
The hardworking tradesmen and women deserved the free food. They worked through the rain, thanks to the Pocono Raceway lending the crew the jet dryer they use to keep the racetrack dry so that they could complete the paving and striping process on schedule.
Then, on Friday, days ahead of schedule, Pennsylvania completed the job and reopened I-95. In just 12 days. Of course, Governor Shapiro tweeted and tweeted and tweeted and even cursed in a tweet, proclaiming, “We work together – and we get shit done.”
But tweeting wasn’t big enough for this accomplishment. Oh, no no no. To reopen I-95, we sent a Philadelphia Fire Department fire truck with all of the Philly sports mascots – Gritty, Fang, Swoop, Franklin, and the Philly Phanatic – riding on top. The original video is great, but I’m partial to the version Barstool Philly made with the Action News theme song blaring.
THAT’s how you celebrate the completion of an infrastructure project, baby!
Then you follow it up with free beers for the crew at Xfinity Live!
Anyway, that’s it for Phase I of this story. They still need to rebuild the permanent structure over the next few months before the work is fully done, but I-95 is officially reopened.
And look, I readily admit that we’re talking about a really tiny amount of road here:
But, and maybe this is my juiced up Philly pride speaking here, but in laying that little stretch of highway, my home city just drew up the playbook for fixing our country, a, uhhh, forgive me … Silver Linings Playbook.
Silver Linings Playbook
There is a time and place for nuance. Again, I realize that many people a lot smarter than me who actually understand how policy works have proposed thoughtful, nuanced plans for how to build things faster in America. They have not worked. Nuance got us La Sombrita:
So for this plan, let’s drop the nuance. I don’t want to hear your, “This won’t work because of Statute IX sub-bullet 7 in the state code blah blah blah.” This is the state of mind I want you in right now: “build big things fast good.”
In that state of mind, what my home state just pulled off was glorious, but we can go so much bigger.
Ambitious politicians need to copy Josh Shapiro. Set aggressive timelines, set them publicly, and then beat them. Use every channel at your disposal to bring attention to your projects. Let the electorate know that speed means a bigger share of federal money and a better city. Celebrate the people who make it possible. Enlist the mascots.
Instead of a livestream on the PennDOT website, we need livestreams everywhere, for every project. We need that thing they do on Twitch where people can tip the livestreamers, but for construction workers and the campaigns of the politicians who made the projects possible.
Streams are great, but let’s think bigger. We need an ESPN for construction live streams (ECPN). We need talking heads yelling at each other about whether or not projects will get done on time and on budget, or whether John is a better welder than Jane. I want to roll into a bar on Friday night and hear the guy next to me say, “You see McConkle out there on that fab build in Arizona? Kid can fucking weld.”
More American kids want to be YouTubers than astronauts? Good. Better learn how to buzzsaw, little Johnny.
And let’s fix local news while we’re at it. Local newspapers are built to cover local construction and infrastructure projects, and neither ECPN nor the New York Times will be able to cover each city’s local projects the way that local papers can. The only reason I go to Philly.com (other than I-95 construction coverage, of course) is for more in-depth coverage of Philly sports than I can find anywhere else. Local papers will be able to get into the real nitty gritty on projects and the politicians and workers behind them. They’ll get their swagger back, too.
But make no mistake, this is a national competition, with local bragging rights at stake. We need stats – on a project level and an individual level – that people can whip out as easily as they recall a batting average or free throw percentage. I want friends in different cities to shittalk each other with these stats. “Dude, you live in Cincinnati. Your third-rate city hasn’t laid a mile of three-lane highway for less than $10 milly since before your grandma was born. Des Moines is built different. You see that grid project come in at 93% of budget and 7 WAOS (weeks ahead of schedule)?!”
Would the content always be the most compelling? No. No it wouldn’t. In some cases, people would literally be watching paint dry. But it would be perfect background TV, like falling asleep to golf on a summer Sunday. Or like Lo-Fi Beats. In fact, we should slap work playlists on all of the streams so that people just keep them on all day while they work away. Sometimes, we should put live music on-site, or stand up routines. Whatever is currently done on a stage should be done with a big, beautiful construction site in the background.
For a fee, you could listen to mic’d up workers shooting the shit, and for a bigger fee, you could ask them questions about what they’re doing, which you could take into the DIY project you got inspired to do by watching all this construction. We’d all start building more stuff.
And we’d all understand what was going on better thanks to Drive to Survive-like Netflix series following the biggest projects as they compete for federal dollars by coming in under budget and ahead of schedule.
If this sounds crazy – why would anyone watch construction projects? – consider the fact that kids fucking love construction trucks. Whenever Dev and I are walking down the street and see an excavator or a cement mixer, we need to stop for like 5 minutes while he asks me what they’re building and why. (“They’re building a big apartment building because more people want to live here and more housing is good, bud.”) At night, we read Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site. He has the book memorized.
You don’t think we could build something as big as Cocomelon, which reportedly makes $1 million per day on YouTube ads, or Ms. Rachel, who just signed with CAA?!
And that’s if we just captured the early childhood. That’s our catastrophic case.
If we stop beating the love of building big things out of our kids and start encouraging it instead, we have a Disney-like lifelong customer relationship on our hands without that awkward gap when kids start thinking they’re too cool for Disney before they become parents and get nostalgic. There could be video games, courses, trade schools, trading cards… sky’s the limit. God forbid, but I think the thread bois might start telling us that 97% of us are using nail guns wrong before dropping the 10 big construction projects we missed this week.
Plus, it’s simply good business. Advertisers are dying for more live stuff, and this would be a particularly local form of entertainment that would do well with national and local advertisers alike. We talked about the shine that Wawa (500k+ views) and Starr Restaurants (60k+ views) got for providing dinner for the workers, but we haven’t yet talked about the fact that Buckley, the construction company hired to do the rebuild, put its signs everywhere at the site in order to take advantage of all the eyeballs on the livestream.
Advertisers would be tripping over themselves to get involved. They’d start paying for the privilege of providing tradespeople with free food. A shot of McConkle eating your restaurant’s chicken parm would fill your Resy for weeks. For the big, national projects, next to the Buckley signs, there would be billboards for Bud Light (with a disclaimer to never drink and build, of course), Clorox (gotta get those hard-earned stains out), Amazon, Visa, homebuilders, banks, energy utilities, you name it. But smaller, local projects would be supported by smaller, local businesses, all tripping over each other to take a little bit of credit for bringing clean energy to your house, shortening your commute, or lowering your rent.
Where would all that money go?
Some of it would go to cover the cost of the projects, making the financial case for building even more attractive to developers.
Some of it might go to the campaigns of the local politicians who pushed approvals through – all done transparently and openly in accordance with campaign finance rules, of course – making it electorally suicidal to stand in the way of projects with popular support.
Some of it should definitely go to the would-be-NIMBY’s to pay them off for getting out of the way of progress. You think this new apartment building might hurt the value of your home in a decade when you sell it? Cool cool, here’s $10k right now.
Some of it would go to the workers themselves. Each project would split its ad revenue with the tradespeople, letting the biggest, most important projects attract the very best talent. The best tradespeople could negotiate their own sponsorship deals, too. Like Nascar drivers, they’d rock shirts full of logos. Like golfers, they’d get paid to only use a certain brand of tools. Sponsors would fly them private from big project to big project as their particular brand of expertise was needed to solve a particularly hard challenge. Of course, they could do TikToks and Tweets and Instas and good ol’ fashioned linear commercials, too.
The money and fame, and the fact that building shit is cool again, would help solve the labor shortage. Kids would dream of becoming tradespeople instead of sitting at computer screens all day.
Call me a dreamer, but it just might help solve immigration, too, as fans of local construction projects would get sick and tired of losing out to better-resourced rivals because of a lack of talent. They’d demand immigration reform in order to recruit the hungry workers from around the world who would kill for a chance to move to Durham, North Carolina for their shot at fame and fortune. I’ve yet to hear of a talented basketball player who couldn’t make it to the NBA because of visa issues.
What about unions? Glad you asked. The Philly plan strikes the perfect balance of working with unions to get tradespeople paid what they deserve with the public scrutiny that would prevent the excess that has crept into the system. Hand to god, a friend whose family owns a construction business in Philly told me that they had to pay a guy full wages to turn on the lights in the morning, get drunk all day, and turn the lights off at night. That shit’s not gonna fly when thousands of fans are rooting to stay on budget, but those same fans are going to heckle developers into paying up for the very best people when they deserve it. Problem solved, next.
If you think this plan is stupid, that there’s not enough attention and money to go around, let me introduce you to the internet, where thousands of people live-dunked on five people dying in a submarine, where thousands more sat glued to their screens watching an aborted Russian coup over the weekend, where 140 million people watch other people play video games on Twitch every month, a number dwarfed by YouTube’s 2.68 billion monthly users. And don’t get me started on political news networks and internet commentary. There is so much energy on the internet directed at so much dumb shit; I promise you, if we tap into even a moderate amount of that, we’ll get the eyeballs.
And as for the money? The money’s actually not the problem. As Noah Smith wrote in The Build-Nothing Country:
For decades, I’ve heard progressives, including my friends and relatives, bemoan America’s unwillingness to spend money on things like transit and green energy. But now America is spending all the money, and things still aren’t getting built, because of the country’s broken system of permitting, land use, and development.
We could certainly spend a few dozen million of the trillions of dollars earmarked for building stuff on generating the popular support necessary to actually build stuff.
That leaves the “country’s broken system of permitting, land use, and development,” which, and again if you’re looking for nuance and actual policy expertise you’re in the wrong place, seems like a pretty easy set of dominoes to topple at this point in the argument.
Say you’re running for City Council in a city, and your track record and platform is blocking stuff. You tell people, “If elected, I will make sure that our city’s commitment to the full environmental review process never wavers.” In the past, you might have gotten away with this, because the only people closely watching the City Council election are exactly the people who want to ensure that the city’s commitment to the full environmental review process never wavers. But now, local elections are like the NBA Draft, or to use an analogy that doesn’t actually happen, like letting fans vote on who owns their favorite team. Making that kind of anti-building statement would be like stumping for Philadelphia City Council election with the slogan, “Fuck the Eagles.” You’d get like seven votes.
You can apply a similar logic up and down the stack, from small local elections, to Mayoral and Gubernatorial elections, and even national elections. If we can get people to feel the same pride in their hometown’s ability to build as they do for their hometown sports teams, then running on anything but a pro-building platform would be political suicide.
Then, as Governor Shapiro showed, once pro-building representatives are in office, they can take the celebrity and popularity they gain from completing big projects quickly and share it with all of the people who helped make it happen. The sharer’s popularity with those folks – the unions, mayors, administrators, and companies needed to get things done – would grow, and the popularity of the folks with whom praise has been shared would grow, too. The incentive would flip from blocking stuff to getting stuff built. Laws would change and permitting would be reformed, like it has been in many red states.
If anything, things would flip too far in the other direction, with politicians racing to cut reviews out of the process. That’s a future problem. Right now, our goal is to figure out how to end the decades-long building stalemate that ails the country. Too far is fine for now.
This post started out as kind of a joke, but the more I think about it, the more I like the plan. It may just be dumb enough to work.
We’re living in a world in which billionaires are challenging each other to fights on social media. People endlessly debate the superiority of various cities online. Any tweet with pictures of beautiful architecture and rueful claims that we can’t build like that anymore goes viral.
“But this is different,” you say. “This is politics! This isn’t how things work in politics!”
Oh really? Obama won in 2008 in large part by being the first candidate to embrace social media. Trump won in 2016 by turning the presidential race into a reality TV show. This cycle, we’ve even gotten sporty. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez announced his candidacy with a video of him running and playing soccer to show off his vitality. Not to be outdone, RFK Jr. is challenging people to debates on Joe Rogan and dropping viral videos of himself benching shirtless in jeans.
We could bemoan the fact that things have come to this, or we could steal the tricks and channel all of that weird energy into something productive, something that makes peoples’ everyday lives better.
Most people want to live in a country that builds. They want better roads, shorter commutes, cheaper rents, more beautiful buildings, cheaper energy, chip factories on our home turf, higher-paying jobs. The current system, along with a very vocal NIMBY minority, stand in the way of that, and it’s proven exceedingly difficult to cut through via normal channels.
So fuck it, we build.
Let’s go over the top, embrace the reality of modernity, and do something useful with it.
Can we restore civic pride, bring back positive politics, fix labor shortages and immigration, and build some big, useful stuff along the way? I think we can.
Will we step on some toes? Yes. Will impassioned fans heckle NIMBYs until they concede? Probably, but please don’t do that, y’all. Will there be lawsuits? Hell yeah, there will be lawsuits. In this brave new world, lawsuits are just another source of televised competition.
It was just 12 days and 140 feet of road, but Pennsylvania’s ability to rebuild I-95 showed those of us who are looking that there’s a better way. It’s something to… build on.
Anyway, that’s what I’d do. Hammer’s in your court, Mayor Pete.
That’s all for today. We’ll be back in your inbox on Friday for the Weekly Dose.
Thanks for reading,