Friday, December 9, 2016

The elegant design of potholes

Forget the steelpan, the hummingbird or a masked man robbing you at gunpoint; the true symbol of Trinidad and Tobago is the humble neighborhood pothole. Potholes perfectly capture what our nation is about; a land of irregular shapes mysterious depths and completely unnecessary car accidents. Indeed the pothole has been our longest serving and most trusted institution. Successive generations have seen governments come and go, new technologies come and go, and road pavers come and go, yet through it all, the nation’s potholes have endured.

Recently, the Ministry of Works and Transport launched a special ‘pothole action line’. Naturally I assumed this was for people to call if they saw a pothole in distress and wanted someone from the Ministry to come and dig it up some more. As it turns out the Ministry is embarking on a nationwide pothole repair program. And have even purchased a pothole repair truck. According to Minister of Works and Transport Rohan Sinanan, “The Ministry will respond within a week’s time” to calls to the action line. This must mean the government has also purchased some sort of truck that repairs Ministries. 

Of course I believe that this new found zeal to rid the nation of potholes has absolutely nothing to do with the upcoming local government elections. Just like I believe my girlfriend when she says she’s going to visit her sick grandmother every Friday night. And that she only dresses like she’s going clubbing because her grandmother likes that. Those who fear that the days of our cherished potholes are numbered should rest easy. As long as there are government ministries dedicated to eradicating potholes, there will always be potholes.

In their book “The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad behavior is almost always good politics”, authors Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alistair Smith, state that there is a correlation between a country‘s infrastructure and its levels of corruption and democracy. “Roads are very costly to build and it is easy to hide their true costs. This makes them a good source of graft, which in turn makes constructing them attractive” write the authors. Government officials point to potholes and bad roads as being the symptom of a lack of money. In fact it’s usually just the opposite. 

Take the city of Rome for example. You would think a city at the heart of wealthy Western Europe wouldn’t even know what a pothole is. But Rome’s roads are so shoddy driving on them is a gladiatorial sport. This isn’t due to a lack of money, or technical expertise –just endemic corruption. Last year Italian police arrested 7 city officials and held a dozen more for taking bribes from construction companies to turn a blind eye to shoddy road work. Behind Rome’s potholes, investigators found a corrupt nexus of city officials, contractors, surveyors and mafia gangs all dividing up 16 million Euros worth of road repair contracts between them.

Apart from the zeal to build or repair roads, De Mesquita and Alistair Smith also found that in undemocratic societies roads tend to be straighter than in democratic ones. That’s because autocrats don’t pay much attention to eminent domain laws. If someone or some village-like in Debe or somewhere - is in their way, they simply bulldoze over them.
Autocrats also pay a lot of attention to the roads that link them with their country’s airport. That’s because they may need a quick route one day to high tail it out of there. They prefer a nice straight road from the city to the airport-coincidently just like the one we have. This should provide some comfort to T&T’s politicians.

Apart from their pothole repairs The Ministry of Works and Transport Programme for Upgrading Roads Efficiency or PURE, has identified 175 road projects for the coming year. I’m absolutely sure that given T&T’s stellar track record in infrastructural projects there will be no suspicions of shoddy work, cost overruns or political favors. Just like I’m absolutely sure my girlfriend isn’t cheating on me even though I found this note she wrote saying “Darryn I’m cheating on you”.

I’m certain that despite the Government’s best efforts our beloved potholes are here to stay. They represent the way Trinidad and Tobago works for a lot of people. And as a pothole paver might say; if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

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