by Nick Taylor in 2009, author of American Made

Let’s get back to work on roads and bridges

Infrastructure’s a clunky word, but it’s important. It means fixing things, and that means jobs. The WPA blazed the trail back in the 1930s when unemployment was sky-high. FDR had to fight conservatives who didn’t want to spend the money. But WPA workers rebuilt the country and their paychecks stimulated the economy. Obama’s got a new plan to do some infrastructure work, but the conservatives are against him, too. I’m a fan. Let’s get behind him on this. Here are some highlights of what he proposed today:

The President’s infrastructure plan calls for a Rebuild America Partnership that will attract private capital to build the infrastructure our businesses need most. By acting on the President’s plan, together we can prove that there is no better place to do business and create jobs than right here in the United States of America.

Investing in a “fix-it-first” policy: The President’s plan will immediately invest $50 billion in our nation’s transportation infrastructure, with $40 billion targeted to the most urgent upgrades and focused on fixing our highways, bridges, transit systems, and airports most in need of repair.

Attracting private investment through a “Rebuild America Partnership”: The President’s plan will partner federal, state, and local governments with businesses and private capital to provide America with the best transportation, electric, water, and communications networks in the world.

Cutting red tape: The President’s plan will cut timelines in half for infrastructure projects and create incentives for better outcomes for communities and the environment through a historic modernization of agency permitting and review regulations, procedures, and policies.

This new proposal would build on earlier progress. Obama’s Recovery Act was the most significant transportation public works program since the New Deal, providing $48 billion in Recovery Act dollars to more than 15,000 projects across the country. Between Recovery Act and core infrastructure funds, American workers have improved over 350,000 miles of U.S. roads and repaired or replaced over 20,000 bridges since the President took office. Over the last four years, the Department of Transportation has built or improved more than 6,000 miles of rail, 40 rail stations, and purchased 260 passenger rail cars and 105 locomotives. In addition, the Obama Administration has made an unprecedented commitment to strengthen public transportation across the United States, investing in more than 350 miles of new rail and bus rapid transit, and helping to revitalize the American manufacturing industry by investing in 45,621 buses and 5,545 rail cars.


The WPA symbolized an impulse of government that is under severe attack. Government itself is under attack as well. Despite the needs in 2012 for economic stimulus and the renewal of our shabby infrastructure, deficit spending has become an overwhelming issue. Nevertheless, the WPA remains a lesson for our times almost eighty years after it was born.

Thirteen to fifteen million Americans, a quarter of the work force, were idle at the depths of the Depression. In the cities and industrial centers, jobless men haunted union halls and employment offices, whiled away hours in cheap diners, or just stood in empty doorways. In the countryside, people moved in vast migrations, dust-bowl farm families in their trucks on the way to California, laborers hitchhiking to jobs they only hoped to find, more of them riding in empty railroad boxcars or camped in hobo cities. One in four families could not count where their next dime was coming from. They wore patched and threadbare clothes and lived face-to-face with hunger.

Federal relief under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had eased the worst of the hunger. But it turned out that what workers wanted almost as desperately as food on their families’ tables was the pride of taking home a paycheck.

That realization was the seed of a program that changed the physical landscape and social policies of the United States for decades to come.

The Works Progress Administration came on May 6, 1935, with an executive order from the president. The Civil Works Administration, a five-month whirlwind of temporary job creation over the brutal winter of 1933-34, had already set the tone. People preferred jobs over handouts. So when the CWA ended in April, 1934, Roosevelt’s policy makers conceived a permanent jobs program. The WPA lasted for eight years, spent $11 billion, employed eight-and-a-half million men and women, and gave the country a new face.

The WPA’s remarkable achievement was to combine the urgency of putting people back to work with a vision of rebuilding America. Its workers weren’t merely raking leaves. They were overhauling the country’s Nineteenth Century infrastructure. The WPA also transformed the social landscape. It recognized the federal government’s obligation to sustain the basic needs of its citizens, and it brought women into leadership roles to an extent that was remarkable less than a generation after they won the vote.

Perhaps most important, the WPA’s multifarious projects and its success at implementing them produced both an array of skills and a confidence of execution that was vital as the country entered World War II and cast off the chains of the Depression at last.

When disaster struck, the WPA was there. During the devastating Ohio River flood of 1937, and the New England hurricane of 1938, the agency sent thousands of men to the scene without waiting to be asked, and they evacuated families, shored up levees, and did a hundred other tasks that saved lives and property and helped victims and their towns and cities get back on their feet afterward, in vivid contrast with the current government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

WPA workers built everything from airports to zoos, including bridges, roads, and schools. They laid water lines and sewers. They dug up arrowheads and the bones of mastodons and built catwalks around the Odessa, Texas, meteorite so people could climb on it and look. They fought forest fires and took fingerprints. They stocked rivers, lakes, and streams with fish, seeded oyster beds, and planted trees. They built and refurbished toys for Christmas distribution, and they sewed clothing, mattresses, and dolls. Some of the best playwrights, actors, musicians, painters and writers in the country, who had to eat like everybody else, wrote and performed plays, gave concerts, painted murals, and wrote guidebooks. WPA workers cooked and served the first hot school lunches, often using vegetables grown in WPA gardens. To put a measuring stick on its accomplishments, the WPA built 650,000 miles of roads, 78,000 bridges, 125,000 buildings, and seven hundred miles of airport runways. It served almost 900 million hot lunches to schoolchildren, and operated fifteen hundred nursery schools. It presented 225,000 concerts to audiences totalling 150 million, and produced almost 475,000 works of art. Even today, almost sixty years after it ceased to exist, there is no part of America that does not bear some mark of the WPA.

I worked on American-Made for a very long time, but it’s been worth it. It’s been refreshing to immerse myself in a period when the government’s impulse was to do the most it could for the vast majority of Americans. It remains one of the most interesting periods in American history, one that today’s current crop of presidential hopefuls could –and should — look to for inspiration.