Bio

McNichol / Gay Head Light

Dan McNichol is a best selling author and an award-winning journalist. In 2008, McNichol won the Robert F. Boger Award for outstanding construction writing while chronicling Minnesota’s disastrous I-35W bridge collapse. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) named McNichol as one of nation’s outstanding writers. He was honored with a PhD in Engineering and Technology for his publications and his contributions to the fields of engineering and construction.  His articles and work have appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer and numerous other periodicals. McNichol is an editorial board member and columnist for CENews and its Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure.

 

McNichol’s film credits include numerous appearances on: The BBC, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, ABC World News Tonight, CBS News, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The News Hour and National Public Radio and many more news organizations.  He has consulted for National Geographic. McNichol has also worked with CCTV, the Chinese television network, on a business program produced in Washington, D.C. to better foster economic relations between the two nations. Dan is now appearing on the History Channel’s new series titled, “The History of Mankind.”

 

Today, McNichol is on a national tour called Dire States. He’s advocating we build smarter, faster, and better. He’s seeking answers to why ASCE’s Report Card gives the nation’s infrastructure a grade of D+. He’s driving the message around the USA – literally. McNichol’s research vehicle is a 1949 Hudson, an original Detroit lead sled that’s as old, rusty and energy defunct as America’s infrastructure.

 

Join his drive around on DireStates.com.

 

 

Blog

The Hudson Whisperer: Road Tripping Through America’s Infrastructure

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Author: Dan McNichol Posted On: December 16th, 2014 In: Uncategorized

Per Drinking AntiFreeze

I was trucking though the mountains of Western Pennsylvania towards Massachusetts in a hastily rented U-haul rig. It was a crisp October morning in 2003. Yellow, orange and red leaves splashed the deep blue morning sky. I was high spirited regardless of unexpectedly having to tow my just purchased but now broken Hudson.

My newly wedded Chinese wife was dialing members of the Hudson Club for assistance from a thick roster we had pulled from the old car’s glove box. Larry, the previous owner, told us where to find it. The bastard new we’d need it.

“If you breakdown anywhere, these folks will help you out. They’re good people. They’ll swap out your water pump and put a plate of potatoes in front of you.” True of them I’ve discovered, but not of him.

Larry, playing the part of an affable farmer that was too old to keep driving his prized Hudson, Pacemaker, assured me I could drive problem free from his farm in Central Ohio back to Boston. Taking receipt of my $7,000 cashier check he patted me on the back. Waiving goodbye to each other, I eased the old Hudson down his long dirt driveway certain we be hearing from one another soon.

The first breakdown was a few miles from his mailbox. I pulled onto the shoulder of the highway after losing locomotion. An intense clicking came from the gas tank followed by coughing, wheezing and the engine’s failure. It felt like we’d run out of gas but I’d just topped off the tank at a Texaco Station near the onramp to Interstate 70.

In hay like grass my wife and I laid in wait against a farmer’s fence. The sky was clear and the sun getting hot in the late morning. I’d passed along this stretch of the Interstate many times driving between Philadelphia and Wittenberg University. At my alma mater, less than fifty miles down the road in Springfield, Ohio, we heard much of the The National Road, America’s first interstate highway that launched pioneers plying their way West. Springfield was the last town for the famed road running parallel with this part of I-70.

I was simultaneously feeling clueless about cars and foolish for buying this one. All day, as the car stuttered, stalled and died every 20 miles I’d call old Larry from the shoulder of the road. Hitting the Allegheny Mountains it was clear that pushing on was going to be too dangerous. The jagged rock faces leaning into the breakdown lanes of the mountain passes of I-80 were ominous. We were lucky to find a U-Haul rig close by that was large enough to tow a car trailer that held the long bodied American ride. “These people, Per & Rose Christiansen, live near us,” my wife squeaked in broken English.  More importantly she noted, they had a star next to their names indicating a wiliness to aid the mechanically challenged. Too shy to speak to strangers she dialed the phone and slid it to my ear. I kept both hands on the steering wheel of the unfamiliar truck. A vintage answering machine played back a human, albeit strangely robotic, salutation, instructing callers to, “Please leave a message.” I sent a monologued S.O.S. “Hi, My name’s Dan McNichol. I live near you in Boston. I’m an author of books on The Big Dig. I’ve just finished writing a book on the Eisenhower Intestate System. I bought a 1951 to do a national book tour but it broke down in Ohio. I need to get the car ready for a drive across America in a few weeks. I’ll be in Boston by the end of the day. I was wondering if you…” “Hello? Hello? Hello?,” interrupted the now live version of the voice I had just heard on tape. My target audience had been screening calls. Hearing Hudson, author and road trip, I later learned, opened Per’s garage door to my problematic car project. “Per. Pronounced Pair, like the fruit,” corrected the elder’s voice on the other end of the line. He was stern. I was desperate. It was the beginning of a long relationship.

 

Blowout: Road Tripping Through America’s Infrastructure

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Author: Dan McNichol Posted On: November 2nd, 2014 In: Uncategorized

NPR I-93 Sept 2010

The National Public Radio interview I was doing was interrupted by an explosion – then a violent shaking of the old car. I wrestled the enormous cracked plastic steering wheel now shaking madly. I fought to keep the 60-year old classic between superhighway’s painted lines but she was wanting to dump all 3,500 pounds of herself into a tree lined ravine running alongside the right side of the road. Thankfully I had installed seat belts before agreeing to do the interview.

The veteran news correspondent, still wearing her oversized headphones and holding a microphone that looked like a dead rabbit, went silent. I kept talking to calm us. She was pale – her mouth hung open as she pushed hard on an imaginary break pedal on the passenger side. She watched me struggle. Her face said, “We’re going to die.”

We were losing speed as the blowout front tire on the driver’s side dragged us to the left. A truck I had overtaken a moment earlier was beside us again. A sedan in the passing lane pulled back into a blind spot. An over correction with a hard pull of the steering wheel to the right was as dangerous as letting the old car go where it wanted – in the ditch to our left. Stopping in the center of the 4 lane highway was the worse. I continued my struggle to calm the old cracked plastic steering wheel.

The antique yellowed review mirrors weren’t to be trusted. They were for powdering a nose or painting lips, not making life and death decisions. Instead I looked over both shoulders, jerking my head side to side. I decided to make a crash landing in the breakdown lane. But did the trucker know my escape route? Our emergency flight plan crossed his path.

More out of habit than proper warning I threw the toggle on the indicator. I knew the Hudson’s antique 6-volt light bulb in my passenger side tail light, no better than an old flashlight bulb, was worthless in the late morning’s sunshine. I ordered my conscripted copilot was to brace herself as I punched the gas.

The Hudson was shaking as if it were a World War II bomber taking flack. Beginning my approach for the emergency lane I had a sobering recollection: Breakdown lanes along this stretch of the overcrowded Route 128 are used for high speed travel during commuting rush hours. Unsuspecting out of state motorists with mechanical failures had been murdered along this road by mad men speeding between work and home.

We came to a halt at the end of a steel guardrail. As if the car was on fire I pushed as much as followed my crew out of the cockpit. We made it to the safe side of the highway barrier. Haunting me was the unanswered question: Was the stretch of road we were standing on a high speed travel lane or an after hours breakdown lane? I dialed Triple-A.

While waiting in tall grass for the wrecker, XXX continued her interview. She assured me that the crisis was going to make for good radio. Keeping her word the prime time piece aired with the blowout captured for listeners. Still, this was a bad omen for the future highway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Desert Oasis

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Author: Dan McNichol Posted On: October 8th, 2014 In: Uncategorized

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January 10, 2014: Maricopa, Arizona: 

Al & Kimberly Saffrahn opened their gate, shop doors and home’s front door to Per and me. At their kitchen table Al shows off a personal treasure – a 1949 Hudson Commodore 8 steel cast model – Mrs. Martin in miniature. We drank a few cold beers kibitzing about snake bites and Hudsons before heading down a desert road to a great Mexican joint for dinner.

Pacfic Coast Highway

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Author: Dan McNichol Posted On: October 8th, 2014 In: Uncategorized

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January 6, 2014: Big Sur – Pacfic Coast Highway: Mrs. Martin is facing South as we roll onto Los Angeles where the Hudson Whisper is due to fly in from Boston to meet us.

Dire States 2.0

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Author: Dan McNichol Posted On: May 30th, 2014 In: Uncategorized

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The tour has been completed. Where should this work take us? Now, Dire States 2.o.

 

 

Google’s Infrastructure Vision

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Author: Dan McNichol Posted On: March 22nd, 2014 In: Uncategorized

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Information is powerful. How we use it defines us.

http://www.ted.com/talks/larry_page_where_s_google_going_next

15:00: Charlie Rose: “What is it about you and transportation systems?”
Larry Page: “I guess I was frustrated with this when I was at college in Michigan. I had to get on the bus and take it and wait for it when and it was cold and snowing. I did some research…I became obsessed with transportation systems. About 18 years ago I learned about people working on automated cars. I became fascinated by that. It kind of takes a while to get these projects going. But I am super excited about the possibilities of that. Improving the world. There are 20 million people or more injured per year. [Automobile accidents are] the leading cause of death for people under 34 in the US. Saving space and making life better: Los Angeles is half parking lots and roads. Half of the area. Most cities are not far behind acutely. It’s crazy that that’s what we use our space for. I think we can be there very, very soon. We’ve driven well over a 100,000 miles now – totally automated. I am super excited about getting that out quickly.”

17:00: Bikes in the future. Working with Google campuses and cities to put them on wires above the street.Separating bikes from cars with a minimal cost.

9:30: Access to the internet: 2 out of 3 people don’t have access to the internet. Hot air balloons – floating the grid above the earth and creating internet access in mountainous regions. Access points up high – cheaply.

Go Low & Slow

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Author: Dan McNichol Posted On: January 7th, 2014 In: Uncategorized

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“Go low and slow,” said Mark Lewis as casually as is Californian. The night before I had parked the Hudson outside my cabin’s door while staying the night at Deejen’s Big Sur Inn on the Pacific Coast Highway. As I approached Mark he was smiling and gazing at Mrs. Martin. We struck an early morning conversation over her. The “dude” from England stays connected to California by driving up and down the Pacific Coast Highway with his wife Claire every year. “I always stay here at Deejen’s along the way. I’ve been coming here for 30 years. It’s one of my favorite places anywhere.”

The sun was barely up when we met. The Pacific air was scented from smoke from a morning fire in my fireplace and a still smoldering forest fire that laid waste to thousands of acres in the forest weeks earlier. Mark got the messaging of Mrs. Martin as rolling metaphor. He was nodding his head in agreement as I  delivered the sound byte about America’s infrastructure being as old, rusty and energy defunct as this original Detroit lead sled. “Totally. Right on dude. It is.” agreed Lewis, whose first was a 1966 Mustang, 289 V-8. “The bridges, the roads, they are rotting away. We haven’t invested in our infrastructure since the 1950s.”

This tourist in his town gets infrastructure – both civil and technical. Mark sees a direct parallel between investment and return on investment when it come to building systems. “In IT, you invest constantly or you die. Firms believe that they can coast after a big investment in their systems. Individuals do the same thing he says when the buy a laptop, “Oh, I am good for a while now. But everyday systems gets slower becoming obsolete quickly.”

The man, or should I say the dude, keeps it real. A kid from Santa Barbara, a town he calls, “God’s waiting room” where dwellers there are either, “Newly wed to nearly dead.” Mark grew up in LA and later San Francisco where he was a free lance photo journalist who logged time with Associated Press as a freelancer. “I studied film photography and now my entire education is for not. The practice is lost – completely antiquated.” He left photo journalism moments before the big disrupter known as the internet blew it up. One of his claims is he was one of the last shooters working using film. Mark says he would have had to made the switch to digital but there’s nothing better than film, a medium he uses for her personal photographic pursuits. Before another bomb called dot.com imploded 14 years ago, Mark got into the information technology world which took him to London.

The man has survived by seeing into big oncoming trends and major disruptions in technology. This is why I asked if we could stay connected. I hope to draw deeper connections between IT infrastructure and real infrastructure with his intuitiveness.

“It’s all downhill form here,” said the knowledgeable native as I described my route to LA. “You’ll be in Santa Barbara is 5 hours, and LA in another 2.” Claire chimed in adding, “But in this old car you’re going to need days not hours.” She gets it.

Snow Chi Minh Trail

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Author: Dan McNichol Posted On: January 2nd, 2014 In: Uncategorized

SnowFence

1:2:14: Snow fences in Wyoming are remarkable structures if not mysterious. The state puts forward significant outlays of lumber, cash and property in order to keep I-80 open to traffic during the winter. Snow fences in Laramie, Wyoming are legendary. This is where I-80 was built against the ancients, Native Americans who knew the Big Road should not never have been built in the area. Old locals knew better as well as a serious snow channel in the form of a natural snow and wind tunnel punishes the area so much that the rail road companies were prevented from laying down tracks there decades before. But tragically the builders of the Interstate System ignored the counsel of sages. Many deaths over the past half century  along the route are due to fierce storms and snow. The section of highway is notoriously called Snow Chi Minh Trail. Talk came to relocating I-80. Then came the storm fences and now the green fences. The mater mind behind the structures is a little known about engineer.

Check out this story in Slate that talks about Dr. Ron Tabler, a snow wind engineer that innovated by chasing snow storms and collected data in order to save lives not to mention tons of money from not having to plow as many tons of snow and ice. Airports use structures like these to keep runways open. There are even tumbleweed fences to keep the drifter off the roadways.

Months ago, as I drove through the are I noticed evergreen trees replacing some of the built structures/fences.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/08/01/snow_fences_how_do_they_work_what_are_they_where_did_they_come_from_photos.html
http://www.tablerassociates.com

Stuck in Seattle

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Author: Dan McNichol Posted On: December 28th, 2013 In: Uncategorized

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Stuck in Seattle 

“STUCK,” read the headline of the Seattle Times on December 10, 2013. The world’s largest tunnel boring machine came to a standstill about 50 feet beneath Seattle’s downtown. The giant rig, known as Big Bertha, ground to a halt 1,019 feet into her chartered course of 10,289 feet. What is stopping her remains a mystery.

Big Bertha came to a standstill while digging a nearly 2 mile long, 4 lane, highway tunnel costing $3.1 billion. The mega machine, whose namesake is Mayor Bertha Knight Landes, the first woman elected to mayorship of a major US city, is being challenged to dig a large tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a dangerously old elevated highway along Seattle’s waterfront.

The project, launched in January of 2011, is officially known as the SR 99 Bored Tunnel Alternative Design-Build Project. The mega work is likened to The Big Dig, another underground urban highway endeavor which replaced another waterfront elevated highway – that one along Boston, Massachusetts. That project, offically known as the Central Artery Tunnel Project, was completed without a Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM). Work on it wrapped up in 2008 at a cost of approximately $15 billion.

Complicating construction logistics at the site of the Seattle project are the embarkations and debarkations of commuters tourists as well as the movements of cargo. Washington State Ferries and ocean going ships along Seattle’s busy working waterfront take place in the shadow of the Alaskan Viaduct. Also in the immediate area are tens of thousands of Seattle Sea Hawk and Mariner fans jamming area roadways while attending games at adjacent stadiums.

Experts fear the early 1950s elevated highway, a heavily congested commuter route, will collapse should another powerful earthquake strike the Pacific Rim city as one did in 2001. Over ten years ago that earthquake severely damaged but did not destroy The Alaskan Way Viaduct. Highway structures built before 1990 were not designed with features used today to keep them standing after intense seismic activity.

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Inside Seattle’s new tunnel. The tail end of Big Bertha is in the distance. A surveyor is at work while standing on the concrete liner of the new 2 story tall highway tunnel.

Big Bertha got stuck inside of Zone 1 which sits in the middle of the busy port area. Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), the owner of the old viaduct and new tunnel mapped 10 eventual work zones that Big Bertha is set to pass though. Prophetically posted on agency’s website is a bit that portends the current situation: “Think of it this way: if Bertha were learning to ride a bike, Zone 1 would be her training wheels.” Put another way: Big Bertha ran into problems during her trial-and-error phase.

Mysterious is whether the object blocking progress belong’s to mother nature’s or mankind. The area of Zone 1 was created by Seattle’s early settlers who cut down the hilly terrain they inhabited and used the excavate to create real estate along the commercial waterfront. Today, geologists, archeologists and lay folk are engaged in an unofficial contest of predicating what has stopped Bertha. Predictions range from a glacial boulder, a sunken sailing ship and even abandoned public toilet facility – a world class one in its day.

Project managers predicted that Big Bertha’s early work would progress at a crawl: 6 feet per day. Later she is supposed to cruise at 36 feet per day. Those who know tunneling say Tunnel Boring Machines like Bertha are designed to free themselves form expected hangups by reversing a bit so obstacles in the way can be cleared.

“We’re going to get her going again,” assures Daren Konopaski, the head of the International Union of Operating Engineers, known in Seattle as Local 302, the arm of organized labor representing unionized heavy equipment operators in Washington state. “We sent several of our members to Japan to learn how to operate [Bertha] before work on her fabrication was finished. “This is the type of challenge our brother’s and sisters in the trades live for. We’re eager to free Big Bertha and get on with delivering the job.”

Compounding the danger to public safety, the viaduct is a product of urban renewal gone wrong – a hulking double deck superstructure that connects the city as much as it divides it. Traffic runs constantly along the elevated road that connect Seattle’s Western neighborhoods to Interstate 5. Simultaneously, the giant roadway has separated Seattle from the its busy waterfront for over half a century.

“When I was a kid my father took me downtown while the Alaskan Way was under construction. I remember my dad saying he’d never seen anything like it,” recalls Ray Speck, a master wooden boatbuilder and longtime resident of Port Townsend, a seaport about 40 miles north of Seattle. “It was out of the future – a highway way up in the sky with these wild ramps emanating out of it”

Supersized in Seattle
Bertha was greeted with fascination when she arrived into the Port of Seattle/Tacoma from her birthplace 5,000 miles away in Osaka, Japan.  A specialty ship carried her 41 pieces across the Pacific Ocean to waiting customized trucks on the docks of the Port of Seattle. Specialized rigs towed her parts to a heavy lifting crane capable of hoisting her largest section of 900 tons. From street level Bertha was lowered into a 6 story deep launching pit, still in parts and pieces, that had taken 300 workers a year to dig.

Inside the launching pit the 325 foot long TBM was assembled into one machine. The digging began on July 30, 2013. When the highway tunnel is substantially complete in 2016, the launching pit will have become the new tunnel’s Southern portal, the eventual entrance and exit to the underground highway now being built.

When inside of the 7,000 ton cylindrical behemoth, you feel as if you are in a subterranean ship or earthen submarine. Adding to the feel of a vessel on a mission are the grave faces of Big Bertha’s 20 plus crew. Crewmemebers are currently taking advantage of Big Bertha’s downtime by performing needed maintenance. The underground vessel is also being readied with supplies for its earthen journey – a voyage expected to take over a year.

Greg Hauser is the Deputy Project Manager for The Seattle Tunnel Partnership, a construction joint venture between Dragados of Spain and Tutor Perini Corporation of Sylmar, California. Hauser speaks with the certainty of an expert and the passion of an intense practitioner. “This tunnel is going to be completed on time and on budget – this is no Big Dig project. That project regretfully gave tunneling a bad name. Adding, “Every city should have a big tunnel underneath it, “This is a work of art. And when its finished, it’s going to be beautiful.”

Washington State Department of Transportation simply says that the public will have to wait until the new year to learn what’s blocking Big Bertha’s path.

Interstate Highways – River Roads – Logging Trails

Author: Dan McNichol, Posted On: December 15th, 2013, In: Uncategorized

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Leaving Seattle I headed south in the fog and rain. I spent the late afternoon driving while contemplating a manageable morning in Portland, Oregon. I’d have a cup of the town’s famous coffee in hand. But driving into a dark December rush hour I was tired. Portland looked too big to be fun, cheap or easy. Crossing the Columbia River in the dark I was awed by the 405 as it shot off in pure science fiction over the Willamette River over an old steel truss bridge. I thought Portlandia a smaller town. Judging through the right side windows I ruled the mysterious metropolis steely. I opted to keep on along the 5.

The following day I climbed, dove and finally landed the terra-plane in Crescent City, California. It was a wild ride.There were tough looking people along Oregon’s parts of the Interstate. Making the breakdown lane their hiking trail these grunged folk were overburden with their belongings. They blended into the dark earthy mountains. The evergreens, piles of snow and blue sky made the drive pleasant. At Grants Pass I peeled off the Big Road and headed towards State Road 99 that eventually took me to US 199. Ray Speck, my boat’s master builder back in Port Townsend had suggested this route in case of snow. “You enjoy the ride – rolling along the road,” he promised.

Ray’s recall of the road was right on. US 199 was a thriller. I was chasing the sun as it was dropping behind the mountain peaks. Mimicking the Smith River’s curves and rapid decants, US 199 was either rising, falling or curving. It was getting dark when the moon was clearly in the Eastern sky. Heading towards sea level, Mrs. Martin and I made our way to towards the coast dropping into pitch darkness. It seemed like the trip was not going to end or end well. But, I popped out into the town where I met a man who had returned from oil work in Alaska. The pay here is next to nothing. But, you got to love the weather said the stout one with a red goatee. “That the worst road in America,” he said at the gas pump. “It’s like a goat trail.”

The hotel clerk, a man from Hawaii who just moved to California a year or so ago, suggested I drive into the Redwoods in the morning. “Go to Stout Grove and get out and walk around. Everyone thinks that the National Parks aren’t any good. I’m telling you this state park is the best place to see the Redwoods. It’s an old logging road” Turning off local roads until there were no more I took a road that looked at first too narrow for the old girl. Once in the Redwoods I was driving on dirt. I was in awe among the giants.

 

 

 

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