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

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

Infrastructure projects will provide immediate and long-term jobs doing the work that needs to be done. Far from throwing money down a sinkhole, this is a tremendous investment in our future that will reap huge dividends if done right. We can fix broken bridges and levees while lifting up broken people and communities. Let’s rebuild together.

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