AT HOME … Road to Recovery Crossing the Mason-Dixon Line First of 4 Parts

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Over the past year, Upstate Roundtable journalist Kimberlee Currans-Leto has provided her singular perspective on current  socio-political conditions  from her writing studio just outside of Albany.  This winter, Currans-Leto and her husband plowed through the ice and snow of the Capital Region in their 960 Volvo station wagon to visit relatives in the South.  The Leto’s 3300-mile round-trip journey is the subject of a 4-part Road to Recovery series offering an enlightening view — for the nation’s engineers of the infrastructure and all of us – of the shared struggles and common strengths of everyday people coping in heartbeat places of America.

The Road to Recovery is not paved in optimism nor gold, but rather deep insecurity.  In fact, much of Recovery suffers from clear “class divide”.
While middle-class families in Hampton, VA worry about the rate of foreclosure and affording private school education because public schools are too dangerous, other poor families in New Orleans stand in line at Wal-Mart to cash this month’s welfare check.  And all of this hinges on infrastructure because without roads, people have no future. Without roads, people have no way of acquiring knowledge or the tools for a better tomorrow.
Crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, the roads change from the North; they are pit-eaten and uneven.  In Hampton, VA one must commute for work unless you’re in the military. The failure has been to link Hampton with Virginia Beach or Newport News.  There is a half-built public transportation system that no one can use because the city ran out of money.  The average commute is 45 minutes. 
Leaving Hampton, traveling across the south, one is reminded of our country’s history but also sawnothing but outlet stores in North Carolina.  JR’s is a smoker’s paradise where a carton costs only 20 bucks.  After leaving Atlanta, which was the largest metropolis we encountered with its skyscrapers and seven-lane highways, I wondered, “How far have we really come?”
The stretch of highway between Atlanta and Montgomery, AL has two automobile plants: Kia and Hyundai.  There are Wal-Mart trucks, muddy clay, red soil and a sign for the Tuskegee Airmen site. For a place so rich in history, where are the people? 
We are depending on the same roads Martin Luther King, Jr. marched for equality more than one-half century ago.  As the borders disappear and blend into each other between states, there are numerous orange and blue signs: “PROJECT FUNDED BY THE AMERICAN RECOVERY AND REINVESTMENT ACT: Putting America Back to Work”.  Yet the rest stops are closed, where are the workers?  Where’s the bailout?
While physical infrastructure matters, without the concrete (and the trucks hauling goods from one state to another), people would not have food on their tables and all the towns between Troy, NY and New Orleans, LA would be barren.  Truck stops, all-you-can-eat buffets, and occasional McDonald’s would be ghosts. 
Physical infrastructure is important to rebuilding America; we need better roads, better public transportation systems to get around, to be at work, to be at school, to be other places, but it is the emotional infrastructure that also matters. 
People need confidence in the economy; they need to feel valued. Judging from the state of our country’s roads, we are far off the mark
Leaving New Orleans for Ole Miss is like crossing an endless bridge of broken promises.  Some of the worst roads are just outside of Jackson, Mississippi. 
If not for a need to stay over on the way to somewhere else, a culture, a way of life, a rich history is all but lost because driving on the roads there are like driving on broken glass.  That’s done very carefully. 
Still, we were warned about Jackson’s reputation after nightfall: “It’s best to stay home.” The crime rate is devastatingly high-poverty and drugs.  Yet, the nicest lady greeted us at the hotel with a smile big enough to light up the state.  She said, “Y’all ain’t from around here, are you?”  We – with our New York license plates – got that a lot. It was the same warm feeling in New Orleans as well.
Still, there is work to be done but how does one even begin to scratch the surface?  I felt guilty, people from New Orleans, Jackson, Montgomery and towns in between, our town even, deserve so much better.  It was not until we arrived in Chattanooga, TN, we felt a sense of calm, a new kind of pace and an upbeat attitude.  I mention that as a ray of hope. These are places where if there was economic blight, they now are moving and shaking toward reinvention.
Still, clearly recovery has not reached places like Montgomery or New Orleans, still mired in struggle and tragedy.  Recovery is not the first priority, survival is. Sounds dismal but economic recovery cannot be found in retail therapy, vacations or even paying the rent. It can only be found in work, hard work. 
Meanwhile, it is clear from traversing these roads that truckers are this country’s lifeblood.  If they stop, what little progress has been made will be defeated.  Independent operators are hauling – not just consumer goods- but building materials.  And with this there’s hope. 
Still, there are broken links that are easily mended.  Improving the roads will not only make driving and seeing our country easier and a pleasure but also it will bring people together, stimulate business growth.
Instead, all the rest stops from Virginia to Louisiana will be state-of-the-art, buildings of beauty, odes to bragging rights – “Our visiting center is better than Georgia’s!” 
The joke is on the American people; money is flushing down the toilet at rest stops. Those orange and blue signs are not signs of recovery but rather mismanaged funds.  There is outrage over those signs; citizens believe money could have been appropriated better without so many signs. 
The funds from each $350 sign should have been going toward repaving and retrofitting the roads. Instead, we are still a work in progress.  Unfinished.

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