America’s Top 10 Public Works Projects
Well before his inauguration, with a recession gripping the country, President-elect Barack Obama proposed plans for a massive federal stimulus package centered on a public works program. “We will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s,” he said.
Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, so often close to the presidency in the early 19th century, would have thundered support. A founder of the Whig Party, Clay championed his “American System,” which aimed to tie the nation together with canals and roads. He believed that such “internal improvements,” financed by high tariffs, would advance economic growth. On the other hand, Obama’s words would have angered Andrew Jackson, who defeated Clay in the presidential election of 1832. That populist war hero concentrated much of his considerable energy against what he called “unconstitutional expenditure for the purpose of corrupt influence,” targeting federally funded projects and such privileged institutions as the Bank of the United States because he felt they concentrated too much power and wealth in the hands of too few.
Clay and Jackson confronted one another over an issue that has remained contentious throughout American history: how far should the federal government involve itself with public works? Jackson’s stance dated back to Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the United States as an agricultural republic where states, not the federal government, exerted the most power. In contrast, Clay’s position owes much to Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s secretary of the treasury. Hamilton’s efforts to establish a strong, federally directed financial system—a bid to preserve the Republic from the humiliating bankruptcy that had nearly dissolved the nation after the Revolution—brought him into a bitter feud with Jefferson and his allies. Hamilton won that round in 1791, when Congress chartered the Bank of the United States. “The public purse must supply the deficiency of private resource,” Hamilton wrote in his Report on Manufactures that year. But Hamilton’s actions in part did much to inflate a vast speculative bubble that burst disastrously, bringing into power Jefferson’s democratic Republicans and, with them, decades of federal hostility to banks, industrial development, and the accumulation of commercial capital.
In the 19th century, New York State funded the landmark Erie Canal, while private investors often financed the construction of local turnpikes. Congress did authorize the National Road, the first federally funded interstate route, in 1806, and construction began in 1811. But this proved the exception rather than the rule over much of the 19th century, even as Clay’s short-lived Whig Party staunchly pushed for internal improvements. One other notable exception: Whig-turned-Republican Abraham Lincoln helped propel the nation’s most ambitious internal improvement since the National Road when he signed the bill authorizing and heavily subsidizing the transcontinental railroad project in 1862.
A national public works program would not receive committed presidential support until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. He revolutionized the philosophy of public works as he grappled with the greatest economic crisis in American history. A spate of legislation created the Public Works, the Civil Works, and the Works Progress administrations, plus the Civil Conservation Corps, four “alphabet soup” agencies designed to reduce unemployment and revitalize the economy. Under these New Deal programs, the government built schools, hospitals, dams, tunnels, and highways.
“You can’t go any place that was of any size in the thirties and not find something done by one of the New Deal projects,” says Robert D. Leighninger Jr., author of Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal . The Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State, Lincoln Tunnel in New York City, and the Triborough Bridge linking Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens count among the immense, innovative projects completed by New Deal programs. Hoover Dam—raised by an army of workers employed by a resourceful, federally funded private consortium—tamed the Colorado River and met the West’s growing energy needs. Further east, the dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority controlled dangerous rivers and generated much electricity.
For all their technological triumphs, the New Deal’s public works could not jolt the nation out of the Great Depression. Part of the problem was that even these ambitious undertakings were too small and too slow to reinvigorate the economy. At the Public Works Administration (PWA), administrator Harold Ickes moved cautiously before approving projects and once even typed portions of Alice in Wonderland into a proposal to see whether his staff was reading everything thoroughly. No one noticed. Leighninger relates that “Ickes rattled the windows with outrage.”
Such caution limited the PWA’s short-term impact on the economy, but Leighninger argues that the New Deal construction projects exerted a strong and enduring effect. “It was not a jump start at all, but over time a tremendous amount of steel and cement and lumber and pipe, and fittings—all kinds of stuff—were called on, and so five years, six years down the pipe there was a lot of secondary benefit from those projects.”
Roosevelt also helped institute by far the largest public works program in the nation’s history, which would come to fruition only a decade after his death. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 called upon the government’s Bureau of Public Roads to outline a national system of “superhighways.” On June 29, 1956, President Eisenhower signed another Federal-Aid Highway Act, giving birth to the system that now bears his name. “Perhaps the greatest advancement to be enjoyed by Americans during the 20th century may not come about because of nuclear energy, startling medical advances, or interplanetary communications, but by enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956,” reflected Clifford W. Enfield of the Bureau of Public Roads. And the wholesale embrace of automobile culture has universally altered American life, for good and for ill.
Washington has also extended its reach into the skies, regulating aviation and setting up the vast and complex air traffic control system that prevents collisions. Traffic quite unimaginable just a few years ago has stretched the operation to the breaking point, demanding its own structural overhaul. (The federal government was also responsible for the Panama Canal, the space program, and the massive buildups of industry during the world wars, but those developments fall outside the scope of public works.)
Even the Internet can trace its origins to the federal government: specifically, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Defense Department research arm (later renamed DARPA).
Of course, not all government-funded public works projects are unqualified successes. Boston’s $14.6 billion “Big Dig,” a web of bridges and tunnels intended to drag the city’s antiquated transportation system into the 21st century, ended up as a textbook case of cost overruns and corruption.
As today’s new president prepares his program to jump-start the economy, he can take his cues from federal programs of the past, but he will also look toward the uncharted future by encouraging energy efficiency, developing green technologies, upgrading school computers, and expanding Americans’ access to the Internet. “We won’t do it the old Washington way,” he says of his stimulus package. “We won’t just throw money at the problem. We’ll measure progress by the reforms we make and the results we achieve—by the jobs we create, by the energy we save, by whether America is more competitive in the world.” Worthy ideals—but only time will tell whether the results are more Hoover Dam or Big Dig.
The National Road
Started in 1811
Funded by an act of Congress in 1806 during the Jefferson Administration, the National Road became the first federally funded interstate road, eventually stretching 591 miles from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois.
Not only an important artery for people and goods moving west, it also spurred numerous technological innovations, including the construction of the 80-foot central span of the 354-foot-long Casselman Bridge, the world’s longest stone arch bridge when completed in 1813. Needing to span the wide Ohio River, engineers built the Wheeling Suspension Bridge of 1847, which boasts a 1,010-foot center span, the longest of its kind at the time. Both bridges remain in operation today.
First Transcontinental Railroad
200,000 net tons of iron
After President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act in July 1862, the Union Pacific started laying rail from Nebraska toward the Pacific, while the Central Pacific worked from California east. The two lines met at Promontory Point, Utah, where the Central Pacific’s Leland Stanford drove in a ceremonial Golden Spike on May 10, 1869. Paid for with U.S. bonds, the railway marked the peak of U.S. technological accomplishments of the 19th century, the crossing of the Continental Divide alone requiring precise coordination of labor and much engineering innovation. A passenger could then travel between San Francisco and New York in a week, as opposed to the many weeks or months necessary for passage by ship or stagecoach. Within a decade, the railway started carrying $50 million worth of freight across the country every year.
5,000,000 barrels of concrete
In 1928 President Coolidge signed the Boulder Canyon Project Act into law, but the 726.4-foot concrete behemoth did not rise until the Depression years. An engineering wonder made out of five million barrels of concrete, it tamed the Colorado River, providing water for irrigation and electricity for the west. “All its features are superlatives,” wrote Elwood Mead, who headed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The consortium that built it, a conglomeration of firms called Six Companies, submitted a winning bid of $48,890,995, which was the largest federal contract in history. The dam blocks 4.6 trillion gallons of water and generates 4.4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, or enough to supply power to 1.3 million people.
Air Traffic Control
14,305 controllers 87,000 flights per day
Airmail pilots sometimes landed by the light of car headlights, while today’s pilots fly with the help of radio, radar, and satellite-based systems. The modern system originated in the Air Commerce Act of 1926, which assigned responsibility for regulating commercial flight to the Commerce Department.
Initially, there were only towers in Newark, Chicago, and Cleveland. The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 created the Federal Aviation Agency. Today, 14,305 air traffic controllers oversee 87,000 flights per day. With the number of passengers expected to increase from 750 million to one billion by 2015, the FAA is now developing what it calls the Next Generation Air Transportation System to handle the load. Costs through 2012 are estimated at $4.6 billion.
Oregon Coastal Highway Bridge System
3,223-foot-long Yaquina Bay Bridge
With funding from the Public Works Administration, Conde B. McCullough designed 10 major bridges along US-101, the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, “in a panoply of styles and materials that was leagues ahead of the designs of anyone else working in the United States at that time,” notes historian Judith Dupree. McCullough pioneered the use of pre-stressed concrete in bridgework in the United States. His work is characterized by sweeping curves, elegant arches, and fundamentally sound construction. Finished in 1936, the 3,223-foot-long Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport, Oregon, contains a central 600-foot arch flanked by two 350-foot steel deck arches, a combination of steel and concrete that brings beauty to functionality.
Lincoln Tunnel Nearly
120,000 vehicles per day
Funded initially by $75 million from the Public Works Administration, the Lincoln Tunnel spanned one and a half miles and linked New York City with Weehawken, New Jersey. The third and final tube opened in 1957. Because of the pressure underground--at its deepest the road lies 97 feet beneath the river’s high-water mark--the “sandhogs” digging the tunnel could work inside for only an hour a day, 30 minutes in the morning and 30 more in the afternoon. Careful safety precautions resulted in no worker deaths during the tunnel’s construction. Nearly 120,000 vehicles pass through the tunnel daily, making it one of the busiest tunnels in the world.
The Tennessee Valley Authority
29 hydroelectric dams, 3,526 megawatts
When President Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act in May 1933, he envisioned “a corporation clothed with the power of Government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise.” The TVA was designed to stimulate economic development, create hydroelectric power, improve navigation, and provide flood control to the 41,000-square-mile Tennessee Valley, which touched seven southern states. Opponents charged that it offered unfair competition to private enterprise, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1936 that the federal government had not exceeded its constitutional authority by selling electricity. The TVA is the nation’s largest public power company, providing electric power to nearly 8.6 million customers.
Interstate Highway System
When young army officer Dwight David Eisenhower drove cross-country on an army convoy in 1919, he realized how vital adequate roads were for the United States. As president, he offered a plan for “a properly articulated system that solves the problems of speedy, safe, transcontinental travel.” He also wanted to eliminate “the appalling inadequacies to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense should an atomic war come.” The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways of 1956 authorized $25 billion to expand the nation’s existing interstate highways 41,000 miles by 1969. When it was “officially” completed by the removal of a traffic light in Wallace, Ohio, on September 15, 1991, the system had cost $114 billion. Today, Americans log 727 billion miles on the interstates every year.
The Big Dig
Estimated: $2.6 billion; Real cost: $14.6 billion
In 1987 Congress authorized The Central Artery/Tunnel Project (more commonly called “The Big Dig”) to replace the elevated highway that crossed through central Boston with a series of tunnels and bridges. The 7.8 miles required massive excavations that dodged subway tunnels and utilities while not interrupting traffic flow. As the engineers ran into numerous problems, including hundreds of leaks and a fatal ceiling collapse in the tunnels underneath Boston Harbor, the budget ballooned out of control from $2.6 to $14.6 billion.
1.46 billion users
The World Wide Web of interconnections, known today as the Internet, began at the U.S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). ARPANET first linked computers at the Stanford Research Institute and the University of California, Los Angeles, on October 29, 1969. The computers communicated via “packet switching,” a method of breaking down complex data into manageable chunks or packets that were reassembled at their destination. In 1991 Senator Al Gore initiated the High Performance Computing and Communication Act, which helped fund creation of one of the first web browsers and the National Research and Education Network. Like many new technologies, the Internet and its World Wide Web offered unexpected benefits. Today some 1.46 billion people use the Internet to access an ever-increasing flow of information.