Consider the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The infrastructure plan championed and executed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower built a 41,000-mile network of interstate highways that spanned the nation. It was the largest public works project in American history at the time and, without question, it did as much to reshape America as the transcontinental railroad had nearly a century earlier. One might also argue it was the last public infrastructure investment to create economic development opportunities for every American.
Ultimately, the government spent close to $129 billion to build the system and it was far from perfect. Many cities leveraged federal financing to tear down blighted neighborhoods to build highways that would restore urban areas, but negatively impacted poor and minority communities. In Boston, the elevated six-lane highway through the center of downtown – which we dubbed “The Central Artery” – separated the city from its waterfront and caused chronic congestion. So Boston tore it down and created another infrastructure marvel, The Big Dig, which was completed in 2005 at a cost of more than $24 billion.
Some would argue whether the Big Dig was worth the money. Others would immediately point to the development of the Seaport District and the escalating values of real estate along the Greenway that grew after the elevated road was deconstructed as clear evidence that Boston’s investment was worth it. But, in 2018, state and federal investment in new infrastructure is a challenge, largely because most existing roads and bridges are already in need of major reconstruction.
Most people agree that America needs a transformative vision for investing in infrastructure to keep up with a rapidly transforming 21st-century economy. Even as technology is transforming how we get from place to place through ride-hailing apps, and driverless cars promise greater – and even safer – mobility, our roads, bridges, and tunnels are stretched beyond their capacity, and there is little relief in sight.
As the nation and its cities debate higher gas taxes, tolls and congestion fees, other countries are investing in large-scale infrastructure projects and threatening America’s competitiveness. Countries like the United Arab Emirates, Japan, and Switzerland are among those leading the way in infrastructure investment, with Switzerland, Germany, Norway, and Finland leading the pack in the area of infrastructure resiliency.
Recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers urged the government and private sector to increase spending by $2 trillion within the next 10 years, to improve physical infrastructure and the country’s overall economy.
Even before he was elected President, Eisenhower told the Hearst Newspapers Group, “The obsolescence of the nation’s highways presents an appalling problem of waste, danger, and death.” More than six decades later, those words still resonate—despite the billions that have been spent already.
Manikka Bowman is director of policy and outreach for ULI Boston/New England.