Sunday, March 6, 2016

The New Deal: Two million miles of roadwork

("Road Builders," a lithograph on paper, by David P. Chun (1898-1989), created while he was in the WPA's Federal Art Project, ca. 1935-1943. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

New Deal Roadwork

New Deal workers built or improved roads, streets, and highways all across America. Here are some totals:

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC): 707,225 miles. This roadwork consisted of the creation or maintenance of truck trails and minor roads in our nation's forests and parks. Many of these roads were used to transport CCC workers to remote work sites where they could plant trees, fight fires, and build cabins. They are still used today for maintenance work and/or public access. (Source: Federal Security Agency, Final Report of the Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps, April , 1933 through June 30, 1942, ca. 1943, p. 105.) 

Public Works Administration (PWA): 36,628 miles. The PWA noted that "Building new arteries of transportation... has had a profound effect on national life... they open up markets to the farmers... roads mean better education to millions of young Americans... Hospitals too have been made more available to rural America because of roads." (Source: Public Works Administration, America Builds: The Record of PWA, 1939, pp. 184-185.)

Civil Works Administration (CWA): 244,000 miles. It was noted at the time that "This highway work gave employment to pretty nearly every type of skilled and unskilled labor - engineers, surveyors, draftsmen, stone masons, brick-layers, carpenters, blasting crews, mechanics, operators of rock-crushing and road-making machinery and common laborers." (Sources: Robert D. Leighninger, Jr., Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal, 2007, p. 51, and Henry G. Alsberg, America Fights the Depression: A Photographic Record of the Civil Works Administration, 1934, p. 17.)   

Work Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA): 253,920 miles. It was reported that FERA road work "has received the enthusiastic support of the whole rural and small-town population of farmers and business men, and the especial gratitude of physicians, school teachers and mail-carriers." (FERA, The Emergency Work Relief Program of the FERA, April 1, 1934 - July 1, 1935, 1935, pp. 39-40.)

Works Progress Administration (WPA): 651,087 miles. "These projects included work on highways, roads, bridges, culverts, and gutters; roadside drainage; and roadside landscaping." (Source: Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, 1946, pp. 53 and 135.)

National Youth Administration (NYA): 16,927 miles  "Roads were constructed and repaired, although work on concrete highways was not frequent, since WPA was engaged in this type of highway construction..."  (Source: Federal Security Agency, War Manpower Commission, Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936 - 1943, 1944, pp. 136 and 140.)  

Total of these programs: 1,909,787 miles. However, total New Deal roadwork probably exceeded 2 million miles. The reports cited above did not always receive complete information from all the states. Also, there were other New Deal programs that engaged in roadwork, like the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration and the Federal Works Agency (which, for example, had its own brief work-relief program, post-WPA), that I have not included, but hope to at some future date. 

Anyway, in case you're interested, two million miles of roadwork is enough roadwork to go around the planet 80 times.

(WPA workers building Chinquapin Round Road in Annapolis, Maryland, 1938. Chinquapin Round Road has been heavily traveled for three-quarters of a century, connecting drivers to West Street and Forest Drive. I grew up near here and used the road too many times to count. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

Now, compare the above roadwork to today's right-wing approach to roadwork

Over the past many years, infrastructure spending has dropped in America (see, e.g., "The Stunning Collapse of Infrastructure Spending in One Chart," ThinkProgress, November 1, 2013). This drop was not an oversight, but a deliberate move by the political right (Republicans, Tea Partiers, and Corporate Democrats) to shift money from infrastructure to their millionaire & billionaire donors (tax breaks, tax loopholes, tax deductions, tax exemptions, and other tax gimmicks). With respect to the congressional Highway Bill, Republicans and Tea Partiers have resisted funding it, only showing an interest when they could pack it with favors to their Wall Street masters - favors that are completely unrelated to infrastructure. Even a top Republican in Congress has blamed his party for blocking infrastructure improvement. And states led by Republicans are often no better. For example, Republican governor of Kansas Sam Brownback has taken money from his state's highway funding to help pay for tax cuts for the rich.

There are three main consequences of the political right's obstruction to infrastructure improvement:

1. Poor road conditions: In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers warned us about our road conditions: "32% of America’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, costing U.S. motorists who are traveling on deficient pavement $67 billion a year... Additionally, current estimates show that 42% of America’s major urban highways are congested... [drivers] wasted 1.9 billion gallons of gasoline and an average of 34 hours in 2010 due to congestion, costing the U.S. economy $101 billion in wasted fuel."

2. Death: "The federal Department of Transportation estimates that obsolete road designs and poor road conditions are a factor in about 14,000 highway deaths each year." ("Human Cost Rises as Old Bridges, Dams and Roads Go Unrepaired," New York Times, November 5, 2015) 

3. Regressive taxation on the middle-class and poor: When the rich are constantly getting tax breaks, constantly evading & avoiding taxes, and constantly enjoying tax rates that are, by historic measure, quite low, the revenue burden--for infrastructure and a host of other things--is then shifted to the middle-class and poor at the state & local level. So, it should come as no surprise that "Virtually every state tax system is fundamentally unfair, taking a much greater share of income from low- and middle-income families than from wealthy families." And it's not just taxes. Other regressive revenue streams must also be increased to (try to) make up for the lack of federal assistance - bridge tolls, traffic fines, car registration fees, utility rates, etc. Not only is this unfair, it's impractical. The middle-class and poor are barely making ends meet, while the rich are getting richer. There's simply no way the former can compensate for the weasel-like avoidance of the latter. 

   (Some of the money shown here could have been used to fix America's roads. And don't get me started on the $8 million per hour we spend on perpetual war in the Middle-East - money that would be better used for domestic problems. Image courtesy of

We should all be outraged - but many of us are not. In fact, the most remarkable thing about all of the above is that tens of millions of Americans continue voting for politicians who will neglect our infrastructure but still raise (through direct or indirect means) our taxes, tolls, fees, fines, and utility rates. To put it another way, tens of millions of people are, in effect, voting to have their taxes raised, their vehicles damaged, and their lives put at greater risk. Meanwhile, the super-wealthy keep adding tens, even hundreds of billions of dollars to their already out-of-control wealth, every single year. Instead of life-saving infrastructure improvements, the ultra-rich will buy more private compounds, more private jets, more private islands, and more politicians to maintain this injustice.  

As I said, we should all be outraged.

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