Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Making America Safe: The New Deal's elimination of hundreds of grade-crossings

Above: The description for this photo (ca. 1935-1943) reads, "Completed Works Program grade-crossing [elimination] structure under the Pennsylvania Railroad at Minnesota Avenue, Washington, D.C." Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: An oil painting by an unknown WPA artist in Iowa, ca. 1935-1943. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Above: This bridge in Nashville, Tennessee--funded by the Public Works Administration (PWA)--eliminated a dangerous grade-crossing. Photo from the 1936 book, The Story of PWA in Pictures.

A grade-crossing is a point where a railroad line and a vehicle road meet. Grade-crossings impede the flow of traffic, and are also dangerous. New Deal policymakers facilitated the elimination of hundreds of grade-crossings across America. In 1939, for example, it was reported that the PWA had "aided in eliminating one of the Nation's greatest menaces - the railway grade crossing. Under the $400,000,000 statutory allocation of PWA funds to the Bureau of Public Roads for highways, 492 grade separations were built. In addition, communities and States have applied for PWA aid for 40 projects costing $36,292,483 to eliminate 117 additional death traps" (America Builds: The Record of PWA, p. 188).

Other types of dangerous crossings were also eliminated by New Deal work programs. For example, the following was reported by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in 1935: "a pedestrian underpass in Davenport [Iowa]... now connects a large school, attended by several hundred children, with a park containing a zoo, playground and picnic facilities; formerly, it was necessary for children and others to climb a grade-embankment twenty-five feet high and cross the railroad tracks to get from one side to the other" (The Emergency Work Relief Program of the F.E.R.A., April 1, 1934 - July 1, 1935, p. 41).

And make no mistake about it, grade-crossings can be extremely dangerous. On April 11, 1935, for example, 14 high school students were killed when a train hit a bus in Rockville, Maryland. "President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke out the next day, pledging up to $200 million for eliminating dangerous railroad crossings throughout the United States, including the fatal one at Rockville in Montgomery County."  ("After 60 years, small town's tragedy remains vivid 'This Was Our Worst Day,'" Baltimore Sun, April 9, 1995).      

Above: In this ABC News video from 2015, we see that grade crossings are still a deadly problem today. Unfortunately, we don't have a New Deal to eliminate these remaining threats. Tax-breaks-for-the-wealthy and endless military adventures have been judged to be more important than addressing our infrastructure problems - problems that include not only dangerous grade-crossings, but also sewage spilling into waterways and making people sick; children drinking leaded water; dams failing during heavy storms; hundreds of thousands of water main breaks; and substandard roads that contribute to thousands of highway deaths every year. YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOsZexohjgw.

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