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Leapin' Lizards: A Case for Maintenance

Thursday, March 5, 2015

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Maybe, just maybe, sausage sandwiches, giant lizards and a star-studded biopic promising "98 heart-pounding minutes of incremental maintenance" can accomplish what the politicians, public, labor and business all haven't.

Yes, longterm U.S. funding for infrastructure maintenance—arguably, the world's least sexy topic—has a hilarious and powerful new ally in John Oliver, the exuberantly satirical host of HBO's Last Week Tonight.

All images: ©HBO / Last Week Tonight via YouTube

HBO's Last Week Tonight host John Oliver devoted more than 21 minutes Sunday (March 1) to the U.S. infrastructure crisis in a segment that combined the show's trademark depth and satire.

Combining his trademark satire, spluttering astonishment and serious research, the British comedian devoted more than 21 minutes on Sunday (March 1) to the topic of funding maintenance of America's aging bridges, dams, highways, power plants—or, "basically, anything that can be destroyed in an action movie," Oliver explained to the uninitiated.

Alabama and Alabama

The show combines a mountain of hard data with bizarre anecdotes (a dangerously cracked bridge support noticed only by two contractors on a sausage-sandwich run) to make a case for maintenance that should "terrify people into action."

(Oliver notes, for example, that in 2009, both the state of Alabama and the band Alabama had the same number of dam inspectors—zero—although the state had more than 2,000 dams.)

HBO's John Oliver dissects the U.S. infrastructure maintenance issue with hard data, serious interviews and a satirical Hollywood biopic. For the movie trailer, start at 17:15.

"The scale of this problem is scary," says Oliver.

For example, the show plays a video clip of former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood talking about America's bridges. "I don't want to say they're unsafe, but they're dangerous," LaHood tells a 60 Minutes reporter.

To which Oliver observes: "When we're at a point where the Secretary of Transportation is struggling to decide between the word unsafe and the word dangerous, we might have a problem worth fixing."

Selling It

The answer, everyone in the report agrees, is diligent, ongoing maintenance, which requires sustained funding.

The show notes that surface transportation has been the focus of 23 stopgap spending measures in recent years, including one bill that covered the tab for just two days.


The show offered an equal-opportunity lampooning of political inaction on infrastructure spending.

"That's an awfully laid-back way to tackle a potentially catastrophic problem," says Oliver. "The lack of political urgency in tackling this problem is insane."

The "overwhelming lack of public support" doesn't help, he adds.

What would help? Oliver suggests "a blockbuster movie about the importance of routine maintenance and repair."

His tongue-in-cheek trailer for that blockbuster, Infrastructure, breathlessly profiles the drama of infrastructure inspectors and maintenance people—"a few brave souls [who] are willing to risk everything to make nothing happen."


A trailer for the fictional thriller Infrastructure promises "98 heartpounding minutes of incremental maintenance." The tongue-in-cheek trailer has a serious point.

Maybe if stars like Steve Buscemi and Edward Norton talk about seepage, spalling, cracks and corrosion, Oliver figures, politicians and the public would buy in.

The challenge in igniting public passion for maintenance, he realizes, is summed up in Infrastructure's slogan: "If anything exciting happens, we've done it wrong."


Tagged categories: Bridges; DOT; Government; Government contracts; Locks and dams; Maintenance coating work; Maintenance programs; Ports; Power Plants; Roads/Highways

Comment from Kevin Hahn-Keith, (3/5/2015, 9:03 AM)

Don't worry Philadelphia! I am a vegetarian bridge inspector and resident engineer for bridge rehabilitation projects, so I will check the piers next to the vegan smoothie stand!

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