Power Lunch: Roads Warrior

Tom Caramanico — engineer, transportation expert, humanitarian — ruminates on a second deck for the Schuylkill Expressway, saving the children, and Center City’s suburb

JOBS BILLS, THE stimulus and reviving the economy are the political rage. But look around the region, and there’s a problem you can’t ignore: It’s falling apart. Engineers once made Philadelphia great; today, a new generation of innovators is back in demand for our roadways, bridges and transit. Tom Caramanico, 60, is one of those guys — the CEO of the McCormick Taylor engineering firm and a civic leader who sits on the CEO Council for Growth — and he’s knee-deep in the slow, painful process of reconstructing Philly’s infrastructure. Over a meal at Tinto, I chatted with Caramanico about why he does what he does, and what it means for our city.

Sam Katz: We all assume that the bridge we need and the road we drive on will always be there for us. But these assets are crumbling. Why haven’t people understood how critical infrastructure is to our future?

Tom Caramanico: Money. It’s as simple as that. Elected officials are unwilling to fund these projects.

SK: Because their constituents are unwilling to be taxed?

TC: Remember the bridge collapse in Minnesota two years ago? After the collapse, there was a poll asking Minnesotans whether they would support a gas tax increase to pay for the bridges. The majority said no. I don’t interpret that as “Hell no, don’t tax us.” I think it signals that people don’t have confidence in government to get these jobs done for what they say they’ll cost, or when they say they’ll finish them.

SK: Like the South Street Bridge.

TC: Another classic case. How long was the South Street Bridge in absolutely terrible shape? And it took forever to get it to construction. There are bridges like that all over our region. The public knows we don’t get them fixed fast enough.

SK: What should the public expect the reward to be for taxing or tolling to fund these investments?

TC: They need to see huge projects get done a lot faster. Not just four years instead of five — next summer! We should put up signs that tell people who paid for projects, that say “Work will start on X date, and this will be open on Y date.”

SK: Has the slow delivery of the Obama stimulus program hurt us?

TC: They wanted “shovel-ready” projects that could go to construction now. But funding is needed to put a project into “shovel-ready” status, and there wasn’t funding, so there really weren’t many big projects ready to go. You can’t design a project that you don’t have the money to build.

SK: What would we see if there was a fast-track culture and a spigot gushing money?

TC: A lot of reconstruction work on I-95.