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May 10, 2014
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Dan McNichol - Dire States

On Monday, November 4th, 2013, Dan McNichol visited the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus as part of his “Dire States” tour. The tour was focused on promoting ASCE’s Report card and the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure. Dan, an author and journalist by trade, has written extensively on civil engineering and infrastructure topics in the United States (see The Roads That Built America and The Big Dig, among others). Currently, however, he is focused on public speaking in order to create a dialog about infrastructure issues nationwide.

The tour involved several stops around the country and the entire voyage was made in a 1949 Hudson (“Lead Sled”), itself a symbol of (in the views of Dan and many others) our country’s formerly majestic, but now often deteriorating, infrastructure.

Although Dan spent the day in some of the University’s civil engineering classes talking with students, the main focus of his visit was his afternoon lecture. In his talk, he discussed the issues surrounding all types of deteriorating infrastructure nationally, from bridges to dams to roads and more. Although he mentioned possible consequences of not dealing with these issues, he spent more of his time focusing on constructive solutions. He further acknowledged that one of the most important steps is getting the general public to be aware of the issues so they want to become involved in finding solutions. People who are invested in the issues would be more likely to see the benefits of “smart infrastructure,” including but not limited to improved safety, increased sustainability, and increased mobility. With this motivation, he argued, these people would in turn be more likely to work with others and contact political leaders and those with the power to make important decisions on planning, spending etc.

Taking a stake in the issue and local infrastructure projects themselves was one of Dan’s main points that seemed to resonate with the audience based on further questions in the panel discussion following the lecture. A video of the talk and the panel discussion is available at:

After his talk, Dan participated in a panel discussion along with Dr. Craig Benson (UW Madison CEE Department Chair, Geotechnical Engineering Professor, and P.E), Mr. Mark Gottlieb (Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and P.E.), and Mr. Jon Lindert (President of the ASCE Wisconsin Section and P.E.). The discussion was moderated by Dr. David Noyce, Associate Director of Safer-Sim, also Civil Engineering Professor. The panel answered a variety of questions on infrastructure issues nationwide and discussed possible solutions to some of the problems Dan posed. Their diverse backgrounds, ranging from academic to political to public and private consulting work, led to immense depth and breadth of knowledge on the questions they were asked. At the end of the discussion, the panel took questions from the audience.

Overall, the event was a big success for the University and its Civil Engineering Department, ITE and ASCE student chapters, and many other groups involved. At the very least, Dan’s talk made those in attendance think about the state of our nation’s infrastructure which is necessary to begin the discussion that will drive the change he and many others desire.