In the 1950s, America’s infrastructure was the envy of the world and it was getting better. Plans to build the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly called the Interstate Highway System, inspired highway projects around the world. These included the national highway systems of France, Italy, the United Kingdom and South Africa.
The message was the Americans knew what they were doing and the sensible thing was to emulate them.
At the same time, on farmland in Northern Virginia, the federal government authorized construction of an international airport named for the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, and designed by the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. It was an act of faith. From its opening in 1962 until the early 1980s, Dulles International Airport was something of a white elephant. Today, it has taken its place as one of the busiest international airports and the premier airport for Washington, D.C.
It is awesome to contemplate that the politicians and bureaucrats could have been so farsighted as to build a giant airport in the belief that the airplanes would come. But those were the days when people were confident and planners believed that infrastructure was integral to future prosperity. They only had to look at the railroads, still largely intact, carrying goods and passengers between cities; waterways, constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers, operating as the least expensive means of moving heavy loads, and a private bus network linking villages and towns to the metropolises. The electrification of rural America, which began in the 1930s, was nearly complete. And in Shippingport, Pa., Adm. Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy, was building the prototype of a civilian nuclear power plant.
In the 1960s, the change from major to minor in infrastructural thinking was sudden and catastrophic. Big government building was out, local control was in. Transportation projects were shelved by the thousands, from small local highways to grand urban bypasses. The Army Corps of Engineers was denounced, nuclear power was opposed, and new transportation initiatives were seen as being at odds with the integrity of local communities. The first steps toward the gridlocking of America were taken.
The hostility to growth in the 1960s was initiated and executed by the left, operating through environmentalists, social reformers, academic dreamers, and even the anti-Vietnam War activists and the women’s movement.
Today, the hostility to growth and repair of the infrastructure comes as much from the right as from the left. The left sings its old choruses against big public works projects, including airports, dams, highways, new electric generation and nuclear. Its only remaining dream from the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt is urban transportation. And the right? It is singing harmoniously with the left against the future. Its rationale is different, but the consequences are the same. The right reasons that governments can do nothing right, and therefore nothing should be done; and there can be no money for big projects, because new taxes are an unspeakable evil.
So it is that last week, the Department of Transportation pulled the plug on a plan to extend Washington’s subway system to Dulles International Airport. There is irony here: the airport was built by visionaries and this needed link has been felled by the shortsighted. The amount of federal money at stake is one-fifth of the total cost of the project, some $900 million.
This is the picture: there is money to stimulate the economy, but no money to build the infrastructure that created the economy. The neoagrarians of the left and those who have no hope on the right are allied against the future.
By the way, much that the government has done over time has returned enormous dividends for the people; materials from NASA, dams and ports built by the Army Corps of Engineers. And, yes, the last gift that big, bad government gave to us was the Internet.