2014-03-07 / Opinion

On Highways, Byways, and Fiberways

I n 1785, before he was elected president, George Washington made a simple case for a rather unglamorous and inglorious cause: a well-designed and functioning infrastructure.

In typically understated, but direct fashion, the gentleman farmer and decorated war hero said, “The credit, the saving, and convenience of this country all require that our great roads leading from one public place to another should be straightened and established by law . . . To me these things seem indispensably necessary.”

What Washington understood then, and is accepted now, is that infrastructure is as vital to a nation’s prosperity as is a strong defense and the freedom to pursue industry.

Without a well-laid network of roads and bridges, America’s early economy would be destined to be second-tier.

At the time, Europe’s intricate network of highways, ports, and ancient trade routes were seen as engines of prosperity.

Though the modes of transportation have changed, the centrality of our infrastructure to our national and economic health remains the same.

On Wednesday, Feb. 26, the City Council took up a resolution put forth by Councilor Naomi Neville calling on our congressional delegation to pass a long-term funding bill to ensure the future solvency of the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which provides millions of dollars for state and local transportation projects every year.

When it comes to our infrastructure, there can be no compromises.

Not only must we take care of what we already have, but we also need to pay mind to developing the highways of tomorrow.

On Saturday, March 1 the city’s Information and Technology Working Group sponsored a tech expo at Thompson Middle School.

The day was meant to showcase not only the projects being developed in our schools, but also the large-scale effort currently under way to bring fiberoptic broadband Internet to Aquidneck Island.

Just as the post roads and interstate highways that would be developed in the 19th and 20th centuries paved the way for our emergence as a global hegemon, we must begin to view the information corridors being developed across the globe as critical infrastructure that will not only lead to a greater quality of life, but also provide the underpinnings to a 21st century economy.

Like the movement of goods, wherever information flows most freely is where you’ll soon find the greatest flow of capital.

On its own, Rhode Island is small enough that it could establish itself as the first truly fiberoptic state. And with our robust defense industry, Aquidneck Island could be its focal point.

But it will take a buy-in on the part of residents to make that happen. And the political will of our elected officials who see the potential of developing a fiber-based economy.

The Tech Expo – though small in the scheme of things – is one way to begin opening eyes.

Over 150 years after General Washington espoused the importance of roads, another former general would come to the same conclusion.

Dwight Eisenhower had a particular understanding of a well-designed infrastructure. In 1919, he was part of a military convoy that spent 62 days traversing the United States by way of the Lincoln Highway – our first transcontinental thoroughfare. Later, during and after World War II, he saw firsthand the role that the German Autobahn had played in moving huge caravans of troops and goods across the whole of Western Europe.

In his memoir, “At Ease,” Eisenhower drew the two experiences together.

“The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.”

Our current information network is akin to a two-lane highway. The challenge we now face is how best to again lay broader ribbons across the land.

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