Obama stimulus: More old school fix-ups, less New Deal grandeur


Compared with the epic approach of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, President Obama’s economic recovery strategy could be summed up as: Think small -- in a huge way.

FDR left a legacy of engineering marvels that still adorn the landscape: the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state, and New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Triborough Bridge among them.

But don’t look for similar monuments to emerge from the new stimulus plan, despite its $787-billion price tag. Billions in infrastructure spending is likely to go for less-glamorous but widely distributed projects such as repaving battered streets, repairing rundown schools and replacing aging sewer lines.


“Resurfacing, painting, lighting and maintenance programs are not as flashy as building a new bridge, but as projects they are no less important,” said Jeff Solsby of the American Road and Transportation Builders Assn. “They provide important benefits and create jobs to grow the economy.”

So forget about stimulus money going to build Los Angeles’ “Subway to the Sea,” a massive project aimed at easing the city’s legendary traffic problems, or for a long-sought light-rail extension to Los Angeles International Airport.

“The ‘shovel ready’ requirement in the stimulus bill recently approved by Congress makes it difficult to include grand public works projects,” said Burbank City Manager Michael Flad.

The tight timeline for infrastructure spending makes such things all but impossible. Half of the money for highways and bridges must be obligated within 120 days, the other half within a year.

The intent is to put people to work and pump money into the economy quickly.

“So we concentrated on projects that were ready to go . . . projects that were just waiting for the money so they could be built,” said Jim Berard, spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “Most of those are not sexy things, but are badly needed nonetheless.”

Still, Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based free-market think tank, said: “Obama’s early statements on the stimulus, comparing its impact to that of [President] Eisenhower’s interstate highway program, created a false expectation that it would be comparable to the New Deal in building great new public works. The sad reality is that the bill Congress wrote and Obama signed is mostly make-work stuff.”

The New Deal paid for projects that stand out today, including Los Angeles artwork such as the Astronomers Monument in front of Griffith Observatory and a Streamline Moderne-style fountain outside the Hollywood Bowl, along with public works such as the Outer Drive Bridge that provides a key link in Chicago’s lakefront road system.

In contrast, Los Angeles County transportation officials are seeking to use a large chunk of their stimulus money to buy new buses. The Orange County Transportation Authority will probably use its $65-million share of highway stimulus funds to add a lane about seven miles long to the 91 Freeway.

“It may not be the Hoover Dam, but for the thousands of people stuck in that freeway gridlock every day, I think they’ll appreciate it just as much,” said OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik.

Some officials react sharply to criticism that they are thinking small.

After the Bay Area city of Hercules drew heat for listing a duck pond park and dog park as possible uses of stimulus money, it declared in a statement: “Any job that puts someone to work is vital to both that individual, our community’s and our nation’s overall economic well-being.”

Brian Turmail of the Associated General Contractors of America added: “Just catching up on a big backlog of maintenance needs in itself will have a lasting legacy.

“In some older inner-city areas, if that money were used for school renovation, you wouldn’t get a Grand Coulee Dam, but you’d get a legacy that would be just as significant in those communities of going from buildings that are largely eyesores to buildings that are sources of community pride,” he said.

And some big projects may move forward under the stimulus bill.

New York and New Jersey, for example, hope to receive $1.5 billion toward a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. The stimulus bill includes $8 billion nationwide for high-speed rail projects, although none has been chosen. California officials are expected to seek about $2 billion for work on a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco train. Proponents of an Anaheim-to-Las Vegas line said they also would seek stimulus money.

Gray Brechin, project scholar of California’s Living New Deal Project, which is cataloging FDR’s public works legacy, suggested it might not be so bad that a large chunk of the spending was going to maintain infrastructure.

Noting that the American Society of Civil Engineers has given the condition of U.S. infrastructure a grade of “D,” he said: “We now have an enormous hole out of which to climb. It’s a good thing that the New Deal workers built as well as they did, since they never could have imagined that we would stop maintaining what they left us.”

Moreover, said New Deal author Robert D. Leighninger Jr., FDR’s big projects were what the U.S. needed as it moved into a new era and new role in the world.

“Our needs for infrastructure, physical and cultural, large and small, were much greater then,” he said. “Building schools that had science labs, music rooms, gym/auditoriums and other uncommon facilities along with whole new university campuses improved the quality of education to prepare us for the role we were about to play in the world. Water and sewer works in small towns and large cities averted public health catastrophes that were looming. And some of the things that weren’t essential right away were very useful later on, like our state park system.

“We’ve done such a good job of neglecting the things we inherited from the New Deal that I’d be happy if we just got a massive dose of repairs out of this. New monuments are a lower priority.”

Marvin Malecha, president of the American Institute of Architects, said the stimulus bill’s focus represented a change in attitude, including an emphasis on spending to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

“There may not be the sort of impact from a physical standpoint that New Deal projects had,” he said, but “if a framework for a 21st century mass transit system is developed and we can minimize the 1 in 5 children who spend their school days learning in a trailer, then there will be a tremendous, positive, lasting impact.”




New Deal dividends

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s recovery plan during the Great Depression resulted in a number of projects still standing. Many were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration and Works Progress Administration. Some enduring examples:


Built between 1933 and 1936 at a cost of $77 million ($1.3 billion in today’s dollars). The project began during President Hoover’s administration but was completed under FDR.


Washington state

Built between 1933 and 1942 at a cost of $63 million ($1.1 billion in today’s dollars). A few weeks after his election, FDR included the Grand Coulee Dam in his new Public Works Administration program.


New York

Built between 1937 and 1939 for $40 million ($607 million in today’s dollars). WPA funding was used to build the airport, which was named for progressive New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who cooperated with FDR’s New Deal program.


Mt. Hood, Ore.

Construction began in 1936 and was completed in 1937. The ski lodge is entirely handmade of wood, stone and iron by WPA workers and artisans. Construction cost: $695,730 ($10.9 million in today’s dollars).


Sources: California Department of Transportation, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Friends of Timberline, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Graphics reporting by Julie Sheer.