The Gravy Train to nowhere?

With Obama's new New Deal gaining momentum, let's remain skeptical of big projects that are touted as economic saviors. States like ours may be desperate, but a boondoggle is still a boondoggle.
Crosscut archive image.

Ice Harbor Dam on the Lower Snake River near Pasco, Wash. (EPA)

With Obama's new New Deal gaining momentum, let's remain skeptical of big projects that are touted as economic saviors. States like ours may be desperate, but a boondoggle is still a boondoggle.

The New Deal and federal programs of the mid-20th century radically reshaped the Pacific Northwest with dams, nuclear power, land reclamation, cheap energy, and thousands of projects large and small that improved our infrastructure — from new airports to National Park lodges. Not all of the changes were good, as Hanford contamination, unsustainable agricultural practices, and the destruction of salmon runs remind us.

And then there's the massive growth and pollution that resulted from heavy industry and a booming population. Working-class folk hero Woody Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration to sing the virtues of the Columbia dams. Today, many Guthrie fans would like to see dams removed and the habitat they destroyed restored. "Roll On, Columbia" seems less an anthem to a bright future than what it was: government-funded PR for a growth-for-growth's sake philosophy.

We benefited mightily and materially from the original New Deal, but we paid a price. Ironically, some of the new "green jobs" being touted today are essentially to make up for past mistakes, to set us on a new course that is ostensibly less about chewing up resources than using them more wisely. Unfortunately, in the rush to demand government action and get a piece of the federal pie, there's a risk we'll make some of the same kinds of mistakes.

Virtually every state in the Union is facing large budget deficits, and the nation's governors are asking for billions of dollars in assistance. Cities are too. In Washington state, Gov. Christine Gregoire is facing a $5 to $6 billion budget hole for the next biennium, a circumstance she described as "truly ugly."

To goose the state's economy, she's trying to get the feds to cough up $300 million for immediate programs. She wants another $600 million for fast-tracked infrastructure short-term projects (roads, bridges, schools), and says she might ask for up to $1 billion in federal funds to bolster Medicaid. She has the clout of a powerful Congressional delegation and her own access to Obama's ear.

Now that Congress is starting to work on a bailout package for the states, everyone's got a hand out. If you notice, now every publicly funded project is glossed as a necessary jobs generator. The state sees dollar signs for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and wants federal money for rail, trolleys, freeway expansion, roads, and new bridges. Other building projects are also moving out of the shadows in the new climate. As the Port of Seattle's new (and controversial) Third Runway opened last month there was already talk of siting a fourth runway somewhere in Pugetopolis.

The Pentagon's tanker deal is up for grabs again and Boeing and its Congressional and state legislative allies are determined to get it this time. The financial crisis is putting wind at their back because now, more than ever, the need for American jobs trumps outsourcing contracts to overseas bidders.

Rick Bender of the Washington State Labor Council is pushing for speeding up the proposed expansion of the Washington State Convention Center, a facility that is gobbling up downtown. The state is looking at a $500 million expansion, one that will boost local hotels and a retail core that depends now on tourists and conventioneers to stay alive. In the meantime, the City is looking at how to get a piece of the hotel-motel tax pie for revamping Key Arena. It's not just about NBA basketball anymore, of even a Seattle Center bailout. Such infrastructure projects will save America! We all live in Nickelsville now.

While shoring up infrastructure is good, many projects remain sketchy for economic, policy, and environmental reasons. Despite the immediate economic boost, we might be better off if some projects were never built, and we're certainly being rushed toward policies on infrastructure (like tolling and congestion pricing, even privatization) that carry with them larger societal implications. The new New Deal is still predicated on the idea that growth is good, that building big and more is our destiny. Edward Abbey said that's the political philosophy of a cancer cell. It's certainly the kind of over-reach that's helped put us in the dire straits we're in now.

Not all new aid is infrastructure. There will likely be money for unemployment benefits, social safety nets, perhaps green job training. Personally, I'd rather see assistance go to Puget Sound clean-up or habitat restoration than bigger highway bridges or new jetways. I'd rather see tax incentives or grants for alternative energy entrepreneurs than a half-billion dollar care package for downtown Seattle hotels.

Can this new New Deal dare to think small? Can it be that the solution lies in a million different, incremental projects rather than simply borrowing more and more to build more and more?

It's also worth bearing in mind that many lousy infrastructure projects have been proposed, and some undertaken, before sanity prevailed. Think of the state's past desire to bridge the San Juan Islands, or to build a north-south highway (I-605) through the Cascade foothills, or Seattle's neighborhood-killing R.H. Thomson Expressway. or the ill-conceived Green Line monorail. Examples abound, and they are almost always pushed with arguments of urgency.

The Western historian and critic Bernard DeVoto described his politics this way in 1943: "Politically, I am a New Dealer on Election Day and a critic of the New Deal at other times.'ꀝ Some federal help will be a godsend, but not all that comes our way down the federal flume will be good for us. Some will be the same, old worn-out ideas wrapped in the new frock of economic desperation.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.