public improvements

Infrastructure Investment at Crossroads

The Columbia River Crossing is just one example of faltering attempts to improve existing infrastructure as voter and ratepayer skepticism grows about footing the bill.Americans have engaged in a running dialogue on what in Abraham Lincoln's day were called public improvements, but what we today, perhaps with less clarity, refer to as infrastructure. 

The debate hasn't really changed over time. Political and business leaders have called for canals, highways and water systems to stoke progress. Individuals, taxpayers and ratepayers have resisted, citing the cost and the benefits that accrue to the few, not the many.

The Great Depression changed the national mind for at least a generation or two. Public works, as Franklin Roosevelt called them, became the engine to put America back to work, while creating roads, bridges, power plants, parks and monuments that would offer opportunities for future generations.

A similar instinct inspired Dwight Eisenhower, after World War II, to begin building an interstate highway system to expand the mobility of Americans, speed the movement of freight, and open vast new vistas for development in what became America's suburbs — where returning veterans could invest in new homes and a new lifestyle.