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How the Erie Canal and Hoover Dam hold lessons for today's hard times

We're desperate for jobs, so why not put people to work fixing America's decaying infrastructure?
Bypass bridge being built near Hoover Dam. This economy is a good time for big projects.

Bypass bridge being built near Hoover Dam. This economy is a good time for big projects. Michael Godfried

We live in strange times: so many people without work and so much work to be done. While millions of Americans languish without jobs, the nation’s bridges, roads, and rails are falling apart. Meanwhile, as America sleeps at the wheel, China, India, and Europe are developing the next generation of infrastructure.

In Washington State and across the nation, infrastructure may be the key to our future. As the body count mounts from the "Great Recession," America is still without a vision of how to revive an economy built on sand. Over the past 30 years, as we developed a bubble economy based on speculation and hyper-consumption, our infrastructure has crumbled.

We need to get back to our foundations in more ways than one. It's time to plan for a new national infrastructure based on smart investments. Surprisingly, this won't be the first such plan. America's history of planning for "the basics" nationwide gives us strong precedents for laying out a new National Infrastructure Plan 3.0.

National Infrastructure Plans: 1808 & 1908

Our recent trend of neglect goes against our history. Infrastructure is in the very DNA of American culture. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson jettisoned the weak Articles of Confederation for a Federal Constitution in part because of the need to build infrastructure between fractious states. They knew such projects could secure the nation’s prosperity and independence.

President Thomas Jefferson initiated the Gallatin Plan (1808), which outlined a 100-year national vision for canal and roadway development. It laid the groundwork for the Erie Canal, the Intercontinental Railroad, and the Homestead Act. President Theodore Roosevelt looked back to the Gallatin Plan when he brought together the Inland Waterways Commission (1908). The plan guided our national infrastructure development for another 100 years and provided the early seeds for conservation, hydropower, and the Interstate Highway System.

Both Jefferson and Roosevelt understood infrastructure to be a central part of the American political economy. Jefferson saw infrastructure as a means of equalizing opportunities for wealth and political participation. Roosevelt wanted to break the power of the railroad monopolies by offering transportation alternatives. He also wanted to protect the nation's natural heritage from greedy exploitation and conserve such natural treasures as Mount Rainier National Park.

In the depths of the Great Depression, FDR cut unemployment in half by providing infrastructure jobs. Through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), millions were put to work building the infrastructure that became the platform for prosperity after World War II. Schools, bridges, levees, roads, and park trails were all built during this period. Today we are largely living off that legacy. Now it's our turn to build.

National Infrastructure Plan 3.0: Some suggestions

  1. Fix it First. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it would cost $2.2 trillion dollars to fix our existing infrastructure systems, from ailing sewage treatment plants to cracked levees. That’s a lot of jobs. These projects do not involve new disruptions of the environment or expensive purchases of rights-of-way. Local governments can identify a shortlist of priority projects like Seattle’s South Park Bridge.
  2. Call a National Infrastructure Convention. We need a national vision that sets long-range strategic priorities, funding, and oversight, and we need states to identify local needs and provide the innovation. President Theodore Roosevelt involved individuals ranging from populist William Jennings Bryan to industrialist Andrew Carnegie in making plans for the country. Thomas Jefferson would want us to engage in community forums and local planning. When the federal government was gridlocked over slavery, New York’s governor took the initiative of building the Erie Canal to the Great Lakes and put a small town called Chicago on the map. Go to America 2050 for a current attempt at a national plan.
  3. Renew the Blue-Collar Middle Class. It's very bad news for a democracy when the blue-collar middle class disappears. The latest federal data show that over the last decade Seattle lost 45,000 manufacturing jobs. On an anorexic diet of unbalanced free trade we have downsized and outsourced too much. Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania and founder of Building America’s Future, points out that for every billion dollars spent on infrastructure, 20,000-40,000 jobs are created. Rebuilding the nation can provide millions of long-term, family-wage jobs that can’t be outsourced.
  4. Upgrade our Existing Power Systems. Vicki VanZandt, a former Bonneville Power Administration vice president, helped modernize the Northwest's electrical grid. She co-sponsored the Non-Wire Solutions Roundtable that explored innovative ways to meet increased demand while reducing the need to install more miles of expensive high-voltage wires. By combining new fiber-optic technology and repairing existing equipment, she avoided cutting vast swaths through forests to build new lines.
  5. Implement Conservation Retrofits. Millions of homes and buildings across the nation could be retrofitted with new windows, plumbing fixtures, insulation, solar panels, etc. The energy and water savings from these retrofits would be immense. The City of Seattle recently received a federal grant for residential retrofits. Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy, has spoken eloquently before the Seattle City Council and Mayor McGinn about the great opportunity to provide green jobs and training to disenfranchised inner-city youth and unemployed blue-collar workers.
  6. Restore Infrastructure and Land Simultaneously. Confronted by the drama of the failing Howard Hansen Dam and levees, UW professor Robert Freitag saw a new approach. Freitag earned his stripes working for FEMA in the flood-prone Snoqualmie Valley and co-authored Floodplain Management: A New Approach for a New Era. Rather than build bigger dams and levees, Professor Freitag advocates a more cost-effective approach that marries environmental restoration with infrastructure renovation. This is homegrown innovation, right here in Washington state.
  7. Create Multi-Purpose Projects. Storm-water runoff is now the primary culprit in concocting a toxic cocktail for Orcas and other marine creatures, according to People For Puget Sound. The chemicals on our roadways are baked on during dry weather and then flushed by the rain directly into our waterways. We can improve aging stormwater infrastructure and put in place Low Impact Development while saving the Sound. This will create jobs and free Willy from the threat of extinction.
  8. Build Green Infrastructure. President Teddy Roosevelt felt no contradiction in being a major advocate of both infrastructure and conservation. We know today that forests sequester carbon dioxide and prevent soil erosion while providing habitat and recreation. Wetlands filter toxins from our waterways and store water far more effectively than the football fields of concrete we have poured to achieve those goals. Edward T. McMahon, in his book Green Infrastructure, is a leading advocate for progressive land use practices. From sea to shining sea, only 4 percent of the American landscape is set aside for conservation.
  9. Remember, We're an Innovation Nation. Isn't this the Town of the Two Bills — Bill Boeing and Bill Gates? In the land of innovation, it is pathetic that America is not leading the boom in new infrastructure technologies. Our ingenuity gave birth to many of the technologies that other countries are now making big bucks on. Right here in Puget Sound we have the know-how to build the next generation of high-speed rail cars and to take the next leap in solar-panel technology, while being leaders in recycling, composting, and energy conservation.
  10. Teach American Students About Infrastructure. One reason why infrastructure fell off the national radar is that the topic is almost totally absent from school curricula. It is possible to go right through to graduate school and never understand where your tap water comes from, or the power for your laptop. Think of all the grade-school boys who have been deprived of the opportunity of visiting a sewage treatment plant! We also need infrastructure degrees at our trade schools, community colleges, and universities. We need a multi-disciplinary approach that combines construction and maintenance with beautiful and sustainable design.
  11. Build Small, Too. Small is beautiful. Worldwide, it is the small-scale infrastructure that will make the biggest difference for public and environmental health. Centralized systems tend to be inflexible, hugely capital-intensive, and unable to serve the growing and dispersed population throughout the world. Solar panels and hot water heating, geothermal energy, rainwater collection, etc. are taking hold in this country and abroad. Two billion people in the developing world lack access to clean drinking water and sewage treatment of any kind; small-scale approaches are literally lifesavers.
  12. Avoid the Edifice Complex. Large-scale projects will always have their place in the infrastructure palette. However, an over-reliance on them will further bankrupt our nation. Poorly planned, wasteful, environmentally destructive projects will alienate public trust. Building "bridges to nowhere" will get us nowhere. Stanford professor Richard White's The Organic Machine offers a cautionary tale about infrastructure development along the Columbia River. For flare-ups of the contagious Edifice Complex it is best to stick afflicted politicians, construction CEOs, and union leaders in a room filled with tons of Legos. They can build to their hearts' content!

In the other Washington (D.C.), crafting a national infrastructure plan must be the main entrée on the menu. So far in the stimulus package it has been treated as a garnish. Both parties have to make it the focus of national debate for the next two years. All the ingredients are there for long-term job creation, economic competitiveness, innovation, environmental restoration, energy independence, and a better quality of life for all Americans.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Sep 8, 9:15 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm retired construction, it's amazing this is even an issue. Common sense seems to be an archaic idea. I'm a bicylist, so am happy to see bike facilities. I also drive a full size SUV as Seattle roads are about the same as Forest Service roads, and I'm just waiting for the sewer to back up.

sonny

Posted Wed, Sep 8, 10:09 a.m. Inappropriate

in the 30's, you didn't need 5 years of hearings on permitting, environmental impact, law suits, planning commissions, and dozens of other time and money sucking delays. those noble dams and bridges where built by men working for minimum wages and a free dinner. $50 billion, after the college grad lawyers and planners take there cut, would build maybe 1 runway and a couple overpasses.

beaky

Posted Wed, Sep 8, 11:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Regarding #10, so true. Nobody learns about infrastructure unless they already have an interest — and even if they do, the information isn't always easy to find.

I've been interested in our city's streets for decades — see http://crosscut.com/2009/10/27/neighborhoods-communities/19316/Fall-is-in-the-air,-and-on-Seattle-s-street-signs/ — but it wasn't until I took URBDP 300 while I was at the UW that I fully grasped what lay beneath them. For that reason it was one of the best classes I took as an undergraduate, even though it had nothing to do with my major or minors.

Posted Wed, Sep 8, 2:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Key is to build infrastructure that will serve us in the 21st century and not rebuild that which we needed only in the 20th century. The 21st century is the beginning of the tough, or expensive oil economy. Time to start build for that future is long past but we could at least get going now while we still have medium priced oil to build with.

#1 Fix the old rail lines. High Speed passenger rail would be great, but the old rail systems carry freight at a fraction of the cost of trucking. We should build more overpasses, straighten curves, add track to make this system more efficient.

#2 Price carbon use such that dumping excess carbon into the atmosphere as if there was no cost is over. That way alternative technologies will show their true value to all of us air breathers.

#3 Build the culverts that are blocking salmon spawning grounds by roads. The tribes won the lawsuit against the state, it's past time to fix this so that we all have a sustainable fishery resource.

#4 Add surge protectors to our electrical transformers. In 2012 there are predicted large solar flares. Unfortunately it coincides with a weakening of our magnetic fields, this could lead to power surges along the transmission lines when those solar ions interact with the wires. Adding surge protectors will prevent the transformers from frying and then we can at least turn the system back on if/when it happens. Plus the backlog to buy a new transformer is 3 years, that's a long time to be without electricity. (And they are built overseas which means we can't just jump the line and fix our power stations while the rest of the world sits in the dark.)

GaryP

Posted Wed, Sep 8, 10:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Are you aware, Mr. Godfried, that Obama pushed this idea in a speech several days ago? You don't mention that.

sarah

Posted Wed, Sep 8, 10:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Michael's history is a bit off, not that it diminishes his main point. The Eire Canal, which established New York City as the most important seaport in North America, was a state project. Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and especially Jackson were opposed to "internal improvements." Madison vetoed a major bill at the end of his administration, and the non-Virginian, but fellow slave-holder Jackson vetoed the Mayville Road, the Whig Henry Clay's pet bill.

Martin Van Buren, Jackson's V.P., and successor, a New Yorker, cynically supported Jackson's position in order to defeat Henry Clay's "American Plan" and the Whigs. New York already had the Eire Canal and a huge regional advantage, it paid for it itself, and didn't need to support national "improvements" (in Van Buren's view).

It was in the Lincoln years that the Pacific Railroad bill was passed. It took the defeat of slave south for the Federal Gov't to become involved with infrastructure (some exceptions early, such as the National Road). The slave south did not want infrastructure, its interest was cotton export to England and France, and the Mississippi River handled that just fine. And they hated the tariff intensely (see the "tariff of abominations").

An example of Lincoln's interest in infrastructure occurred early in the Civil War. His generals were frustrated by the myriad of different gauges among the Northern railroads. He was asked to choose a gauge. He choose Standard Gauge (4' 8.5" - see my bike rack at Canal Coffee, the rack is two rails in perfect gauge - unlike the Milwaukee Road where I used to work). I have read that the Union railroads were mostly regauged in one week's time - moving one rail on every mile of track.

But there may be a caveat in all this. Jackson's public position was the Federal spending on "internal improvements" would encourage corruption and cronyism (although this was no problem when Jackson had his own projects). The Pacific Railroad, Thomas Durant, and the Credit Moblier, are all synonyms for massive corruption. The Eire Canal, on the other hand, did not have these problems and was a great boon for New York State. So is local better than National? Well, as a brakeman on the railroad I benefited from the Washington Public Power Supply System project (WHOOPS). But the public was screwed (to put it mildly).

John Crosby
Fremont

Posted Thu, Sep 9, 9:07 a.m. Inappropriate

A major part of this problem is that, at this point, fixing the infrastructure means making repairs, or even 'improvements', to a lot of stuff we shouldn't own at all. It is, in the most literal sense, building for the past.

Even worse, we have no idea of how to actually build for the past. When Europe rebuilt after WW II, they rebuilt cathedrals and town halls as they had been, to maintain their elements of community. This would be one way you bring everyone to the table and make good decisions going forward.

The analogy, in Seattle, might be the relocation of MOHAI. This move could be dignified and supported by the community, to emphasize the importance to us of our past, and what we've learned from that past. Building the best new museum possible, in turn, improves the future.

But in Seattle, this straightforward test of community is being challenged by a mayor who moved here recently, and wants funds for his own pet projects. McGinn is making a wedge issue out of a move that should draw us together.

The most colossal blunder of the past 60 years would be our housing policy, which, among other things, has vastly overbuilt our stock of single family dwellings- but a common concern about the recession is "how do we restart the failing homebuilding industry?"

This is the industry that blockbusted American cities, creating economic desolation and slums in the 60s and 70s, that extended suburbanization over the former farmlands, creating in the process lengthy commutes and traffic jams and pollution flowing into our rivers, that routinely buys elections and holds the first mortgage on our legislature, that spends millions paying disinformers to deny global warming- and we're supposed to help this industry out of the hole they dug themselves into?

Frankly, I'm not so sure we can preserve our government in the face of the rightwing forces trying to bring it down, and the challenges of global warming. As a spectator, I highly recommend William Shirer's Fall of the Third Republic, his account of how the Third Republic of France failed to meet the crises of the great depression, rightwing opposition, and finally the attack by Germany that the French rightwing openly hoped for.

As matters stand, our biggest 'infrastructure projects' are simply mindless automatons, still building for a future that will never come. That's no way to escape a recession.

Posted Thu, Sep 9, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

@Sarah: Michael sent his story to Crosscut editors almost two weeks ago, well before the President's speech.

Posted Thu, Sep 9, 11:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Fortunately Quinn didn't list all my misspellings. That's what comes of having a B.A. signed by Ronald Reagan.

I refer to the slave south because that is what it was. They raised slaves in the Tidewater and exported them west to the cotton states of Alabama and Mississippi. The whole question of Texas annexation and James K. Polk's fixation on New Mexico and California was overshaddowed by the issue of slave expansion.

I did not claim that the north was not racist. Lincoln wanted to ship the slaves back to Africa or to Central America. And even in my time, in the early '60's, my high school Long Beach (Calif) Wilson had but one black student out of 3,000. Its cross town rival, Long Beach Poly, home of Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre, was fifty percent black. And of course California's attitude about Japanese and Chinese was quite foul. Which brings us back to the matter at hand: the Chinese were welcome to build the Central Pacific Railroad across the Sierras, but woe to them if they ventured into a white town after dark. And those Irish, the ones from Eire (plus some of the decedents of those who built the Erie Canal - its all Irish to me - or correction from my late mom, Viking), being in the main unemployed by the success of that recalcitrant U.S. Grant, found employment at "hell on wheels" building the Union Pacifc from Omaha west.

Southern Andrew Jackson succeeded the assassinated Lincoln. We don't know how reconstruction would have run under Lincoln. But I suspect no different. The great crime is that the slave owners, the ones in rebellion, were restored to their plantations after the war. Justice would have required that the workers, unpaid for 200 years, be vested in those estates. The African slaves, the ones who build the country, never had the opportunity to "get in on the ground floor" and thus their descents remain a large part of the underclass. (indeed, it is argued that the ratio of blacks to whites in seventeenth century Manhattan, under the Dutch and then the British, was seven to one. It was the blacks who build the landscape - but where are they now?).

Howard Zinn argues that the War of Northern Aggression, as it is called in the South even today, was an imperialist venture. Brazil manumitted its slaves in the 1880's. The same would have happened in the slave south. Or the slaves would have taken matters in their own hands.

That outcome has always appealed to me. The North might not have intervened in World War One had it a southern border at Dixie to keep an eye on. Then the War would have been a draw. The Kaiser would not have fled, the Soviet Union would have died in infancy account the weight of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Adolph Hitler would have been back to painting houses, aviation and the automobile would not have experienced the World War Two technological development that came, and I would be a senior conductor on the Milwaukee Road's crack passenger train, the Olympian Hiawatha, 44 hours from Seattle to Chicago, beating the hell out of the Northern Pacific North Coast Limited, the Great Northern's Empire Builder, and the U.P.'s City of Portland.

John Crosby
Fremont

Posted Thu, Sep 9, 1:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Well completely off topic, I have Jackson on my mind. It was Joyce Jackson, President and CEO of Northwest Kidney Centers, who the other day held the elevator door for my invalid and me, and fawned all over him after I introduced him to her as a 10 year client of NKC. She is who I am voting for U.S. President.

Posted Thu, Sep 9, 1:45 p.m. Inappropriate

"vastly overbuilt our stock of single family dwellings"

Can't be true if we have homeless among us. That would imply that everyone who wants a home has one.

It's not the number of dwellings that are the issue, it's the cost of them, their location (exhurbs), and the financing that allowed their value to exceed their historical growth rate.

Besides rebuilding infrastructure isn't about rebuilding homes. It's bridges, tunnels, rapid transit, freight rail lines, intra City passenger rail, bicycle paths, removing dams which block major fish habitat and contribute not much economic benefit, see Snake River dams, and rebuilding National Park facilities.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Sep 9, 8:55 p.m. Inappropriate

http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN0618665520100906
The above is a link to an article from 9/6/10 mentioning the Obama Administration's Labor Day announcement of $50 billion for infrastructure that would focus on fixing our existing systems. I had written this article well in advance of that surprise announcement and could not have hoped for better timing.

Another interesting fact reported by the Seattle Times last week is that Washington State has lost 81,000 construction related jobs since 2007. Construction has been the hardest sector hit nationally and the last bastion for the blue collar middle class that has had so many jobs outsourced over the past 20 years. Good infrastructure projects can rebuild both the construction and manufacturing sectors.

In the short-term we can make immediate repairs to critical infrastructure that we rely on daily such as the South Park Bridge and the 1000s of other structurally deficient bridges across the country (as just one example). But in the long-term we need to plan for infrastructure that deals with the challenges of climate change, higher energy prices, resource scarcity, environmental remediation etc. As mentioned in this and a previous article, we need to rethink infrastructure and that includes repairing and decommissioning older projects and making smart investments for new infrastructure.

Posted Sat, Sep 11, 12:17 a.m. Inappropriate

If indeed there's money allocated federally (since we certainly don't have it in the states) for repairing and/or building instrastructure, I hope most of those new jobs will be truly middle-class jobs. Unfortunately, some Seattle developers in the last few years have hired contractors to provide them with low-wage workers, many of whom were illegal and thus couldn't contest their pay. Those jobs didn't pay benefits, and they weren't union jobs. Unions are losing hold, especially in the construction industry where much work is not highly technical. Is that issue being discussed?

sarah

Posted Sat, Sep 11, 9:07 a.m. Inappropriate

It's not like we've never done something like this before. Auerback says of the New Deal-

[Roosevelt’s] government hired about 60 per cent of the unemployed in public works and conservation projects that planted a billion trees, saved the whooping crane, modernized rural America, and built such diverse projects as the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh, the Montana state capitol, much of the Chicago lakefront, New York’s Lincoln Tunnel and Triborough Bridge complex, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown. It also built or renovated 2,500 hospitals, 45,000 schools, 13,000 parks and playgrounds, 7,800 bridges, 700,000 miles of roads, and a thousand airfields. And it employed 50,000 teachers, rebuilt the country’s entire rural school system, and hired 3,000 writers, musicians, sculptors and painters, including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

If you do the math roughly, that's about 50 hospitals and 1000 schools per state. About 14,000 miles of road, 156 bridges, and 20 airfields per state.

Why did we need that stuff? Because "private enterprise" wasn't delivering the goods. The first third of the 20th century left us dangerously unfit to manage the industrial state we had built.

Sadly, 60 years of always-on business propaganda has so numbed our brains that we almost don't blink when someone complains that the New Deal "made thing worse" or writes about the "war of aggression" against the South, and tells us the South was just on the verge of ending slavery. Some verge, considering that legal segregation survived into my lifetime and is continued today in the guise of the "Drug War".

We've done this before, but even if we hadn't, there are other countries doing it today. Most of Europe is building intelligently to meet the changes needed to prevent catastrophic AGW. There is no shortage of legal or financial models to create low-income housing, public transit, renewable energy generation, or meet our other needs for civilization.

As for the model that does not meet our needs, we're looking at it- it's what we have right now. We've dug ourselves into a hole, and the only thought of the BIAW is that we must keep digging. And that hole is starting to look suspiciously like a grave.

Posted Mon, Sep 13, 10:17 a.m. Inappropriate

This is an excellent article. Unfortunately, rebuilding America´s decrepit infrastructure is much less sexy to the Obama administration than bailing out the banks.

Mud Baby

Posted Thu, Sep 16, 12:34 p.m. Inappropriate

We agree with Michael Godfried that businesses need to make smart decisions and start addressing America’s aging infrastructure. Without sounding too promotional, that is why our company has been working towards creating products that offer “greener alternatives” compared to demolishing and reconstructing aging structures. Our latest product helps lengthens the lifespan of buildings and defers replacement costs indefinitely.

While rebuilding America’s infrastructure will be and is a tremendous task and investment, like Godried says, if done right it will reap huge dividends. We are excited to offer affordable alternatives to builders and long term solutions to aging infrastructure concerns. For more information on how we believe we are doing our part, check out the following links:

Overview of Hydrostop: http://slidesha.re/bXoLdh
Kryton VP’s blog post: http://bit.ly/c6qLZe

Julia Smith
Blogger Relations for Kryton International
webpr@kryton.net

JuliaMS

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