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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie instantly became a hero to fiscal conservatives this past week when he dropped a bombshell.

A state commission concluded that a planned rail tunnel connecting New Jersey to New York could cost as much as $5 billion more than originally estimated.

Governor CHRIS CHRISTIE (Republican, New Jersey): In light of that information, the executive committee has made a recommendation to me that the project be terminated and that the staff begin an expeditious and orderly wind down of the project, and today, I have accepted that recommendation.

RAZ: The construction of that tunnel would have made it the largest infrastructure project in America and mostly paid for by agencies outside New Jersey. But Christie looked at the numbers and he decided that his state couldn't afford to pay its share.

Now in the meantime, he's agreed to at least rethink the matter for another two weeks.

In California and Wisconsin, the Republican candidates who hope to become governors are vowing to cancel high-speed rail projects. All of these politicians make a similar point: These plans, they say, are unaffordable.

And polls in both California and Wisconsin show a growing percentage of voters agree. Now, part of that may have to do with the declining trust in government. If you open the Washington Post today, you'll see a poll that confirms that.

And yet, it makes you wonder how our government ever managed to build the interstate highway system or the rail network or the dams and bridges and airports that made America one of the most developed nations in the world. All of these were government projects, products of an age propelled by the vision of Franklin Roosevelt.

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President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: We are definitely in an era of building today, the best kind of building, the building of great public projects for the benefit of the public and with the definite objective of building human happiness at the same time.

RAZ: At the height of the New Deal construction era, an author named Virginia Lee Burton wrote a children's picture book. It was called "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel." Like many parents, I imagine, the book is also a staple of bedtime ritual in my home, the story of a worker named Mike Mulligan and the tract excavator he calls Mary Anne and all the things they did together.

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Unidentified Man: It was Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne and some others who lowered the hills and straightened the curves to make the long highways for the automobiles.

RAZ: Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne, the book explains, also helped build the canals and the airports and the railroads, too, public works projects designed to modernize the country and move it out of an economic depression.

And many of these projects had wide bipartisan support. Some of them didn't even serve a practical purpose. They were simply a way to get people working.

Ms. ANNE MITCHELL WHISNANT (Author, "Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History"): So where we are is at the Humpback Rocks Farm Visitor Center at about a little past Milepost 5, at the north end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, almost where the parkway meets Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park.

RAZ: A few days ago, we drove down to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we met Anne Mitchell Whisnant. She wrote the definitive history of the parkway, a 469-mile-long road that cuts through Virginia and North Carolina.

Today, it's the most visited site administered by the National Park Service. About 16 million people come here each year. Exactly 75 years ago, construction started on the parkway, a New Deal project that would employ thousands of workers in the area over more than half a century.

And the story of how it got started began when Franklin Roosevelt and his Interior Secretary Harold Ickes went to check up on workers at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp who were building a road in the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

Ms. WHISNANT: Roosevelt and a whole entourage - Harold Ickes is with him, Harry Byrd of Virginia, the senator - they all go to inspect the CCC camp in August of 1933. And as the relatively credible story goes, someone in that party says, this is great. Skyline Drive is great. Let's go south to the Smokies with this road. And that's sort of, if you pinpoint a moment, that's kind of a moment where this idea begins to be possible reality.

RAZ: So Ickes cobbles together about $4 million to get the Blue Ridge Parkway going, and he got the Public Works Administration to get involved as well.

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Mr. HAROLD ICKES: Progress already made toward recovery, encourages us in the belief that 1935 will witness still further gains. The members of the PWA staff are particularly eager to continue their efforts to create jobs through the construction of useful public works.

Ms. WHISNANT: So we're at the James River Bridge, which is the lowest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

RAZ: As we explore the stops along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the autumn leaves were just beginning to turn. It's one of the longest roads in America without advertisements or any hints of commerce, and Anne Whisnant says it was designed that way on purpose, as a celebration of the American landscape.

Ms. WHISNANT: So what you won't see are billboards, shops, businesses, very many homes, entrances to, you know, any kind of commercial development. You're not going to see industry. You're not going to see power lines. They're generally all buried.

RAZ: They buried them. And even the mile markers are - you almost miss them. I mean...

Ms. WHISNANT: Very subtle.

RAZ: ...you miss them - yeah.

Ms. WHISNANT: The Park Service has resisted most of that because they want to preserve basically your views, your scenery, your experience of being away from the world around you.

RAZ: The question, of course, is whether something like this, given the political climate, could be built today. And the answer is not likely.

Ms. WHISNANT: In a lot of ways, you do look back and you think the '30s was this moment in time when things were done that just aren't being done anymore, not just the parkway, but all kinds of projects that serve the public.

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RAZ: And our thanks to historian Anne Mitchell Whisnant and her family for guiding us along Blue Ridge Parkway.

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RAZ: Now, every year, a group of mid-level Chinese urban planners come to Los Angeles to study with Brian Taylor. He's the head of the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA. And without fail, he says, every year, they marvel at the level of development they see: the roads and the water systems and the ports.

Professor BRIAN TAYLOR (Chair of Urban Planning Department, UCLA): And they're also surprised to see that they all seem to be crumbling at the edges. And the question they often ask is, is that, why are you doing this when you know down the road, this is going to entail substantially more costs to rebuild this infrastructure than if we were maintaining it properly now?

And we've been a bit perplexed on how to provide a response to that, other than to say that there's been a growing unwillingness among the electorate to pay for the fees, the tolls, the taxes and the other means to pay for these facilities over time.

RAZ: In its latest report card on the state of America's infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our system of roads and bridges and sewers and dams and ports a combined GPA of 1.0 or a D. And many civil engineers argue that the $700 billion stimulus package passed in 2009 wasn't enough. Only about 10 percent of that money went to infrastructure.

So the Obama administration recently proposed spending another $50 billion, mainly to upgrade roads. But there's little chance that money will be approved by Congress so close to election time.

And UCLA's Brian Taylor says the problem is that many people simply don't want to pay up.

Prof. TAYLOR: There is, more broadly, less willingness to support investments in things like new rail lines, airports. There's been less political support for raising the revenues to pay for those things, because that's the real key.

People remain very supportive of new infrastructure development. What we're seeing is a real evaporation of their willingness to pay for it in the U.S. And many people who work in public finance are deeply concerned about that.

Our Highway Trust Fund in the U.S. is essentially in receivership right now, and there's no willingness to even talk about increasing the fuel tax to replenish those coffers so that we can maintain and expand the road system.

RAZ: If you could advise the federal government on funding huge projects in the U.S., what do you think they ought to do?

Prof. TAYLOR: Well, I think one of the most important things is to create a clear nexus between how we pay for these projects and the use of the project itself.

So, for example, again in the area of transportation, for many years, the way the fuel tax was treated, it was treated as a user fee. There was a fuel tax, it went into special accounts, and those accounts were used for highway improvements. If we wanted to make more highway improvements, then the highway users paid for those by increasing fuel taxes.

Over time, we started to pay for these projects more out of general funds, and that nexus between the user fee and the actual project has broken down so that a lot of these projects had become part and parcel of larger debates over how to spend resources.

RAZ: Now we have a national highway system, dams and bridges. What more could the government build now? And what should it build?

Prof. TAYLOR: Well, part of it is that national highway system is in bad shape, and this is a huge investment. And one of the things that's easiest to cut is the amount of investment it takes to maintain that capital stock.

One of the problems we're having is not only are we not building major new projects. I think the more significant issues for many people in public finance is that we're not maintaining the existing infrastructure adequately.

So we have sewer and water systems that are aging and need to be replenished. Those things don't present sort of ribbon-cutting opportunities for public officials. You know, it's hard to have a press conference and call people and say, we're relining this water treatment system, or we're repaving this highway or reconstructing this bridge.

I happen to be calling you from Minneapolis right now. I'm at a conference. And one of the things we did is went and visited the bridge where the collapse occurred.

And, of course, that attracted a lot of attention to some of the decline in infrastructure, but it hasn't resulted in much political interest in what is probably less sexy, and that is maintaining the enormous infrastructure we have in the U.S. now and doing it properly, and that's a real shame because we're seeing the ability of that infrastructure to support economic activity and growth is being severely compromised. And down the road, the cost of actually rebuilding that is going to be much higher than if we were maintaining it properly now.

RAZ: That's Brian Taylor. He is professor and chair of urban planning at UCLA.

Brian Taylor, thank you so much.

Prof. TAYLOR: Thanks, Guy.

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