When I think about American might, the first image that comes to mind isn't an aircraft carrier, Wall Street, or even an American flag planted on the barren gray soil of the moon. Rather, my image of American power is Bourne bridge, the 616-foot span that joins Cape Cod to the North American mainland. Every summer, my family and I pile into a car, point ourselves northward, and go to the Cape for a week or two of sunbathing and relaxation. While there are several milestones that we note on the way to our destination -- the smell of salt in the air, the easy availability of fried fish, the angry insanity of Massachusetts drivers -- the big one is always the Bourne Bridge. As we cross it, soaring 135 feet over the icy waters of the Cape Cod Canal, we know that vacation has truly begun.
The Bourne bridge was built in 1933 by the Public Works Administration, a New Deal agency that constructed over 34,000 schools, hospitals, airports, dams, homes, and other buildings. While not all of its projects had the majesty or grandeur of Cape Cod's welcoming bridge, it created thousands of jobs, poured money into the economy, sped up the country's recovery from the Great Depression and laid the groundwork for America's 1950's economic expansion.
Many of America's greatest bridges were built with public monies, as were hydroelectric projects like the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams, memorials such as the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and the country's impressive government buildings. Post offices, interstate highways, campsites and lodges, and many universities have also been funded by the government. In fact, almost all Americans, in one way or another, regularly interact with a major public works project, even if only through the letters in their mailboxes or the road that runs beneath their tires.
Infrastructure tends to encourage growth, both in the economy and the population, so it's hardly surprising that the impressive building projects of the twentieth century are starting to burst at the seams. For that matter, without regular maintenance and improvement, even the best public works will eventually crumble. Over the past few years, as the news has been filled with stories of deteriorating bridges, failing levees, and insufficient highways, it's become increasingly clear that a 1950's infrastructure is no longer sufficient to carry America into the future.
Of course, big public works projects require large amounts of money, huge numbers of unemployed laborers, and a national willingness to seek large-government sponsorship of projects to stimulate the economy. With tech bubbles and housing bubbles to keep the economy expanding over the past few decades, none of these things were either necessary or available. However, with the economy starts to look like it could use a major shot in the arm, the unemployment numbers poised to rise, and America's national might looking a little frayed around the edges, it seems like this might be the perfect time for the government to consider how it can built the highways and subways, roads and rails, schools and levees that will prepare the US for its next expansion. Maybe its time for America to start thinking big again!
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Big government doesn't scare him.