By MATT CUMMINGS
Executive Vice President, AECOM, and 2018 ARTBA Chairman
I’m a history buff. I’m particularly interested in the development of America’s transportation infrastructure, which shouldn’t be surprising given my 30-year career as an engineer.
From 1935 to 1943, the Works Progress Administration (WPA—later called the Work Projects Administration) employed more than 8 million people in thousands of construction projects nationwide. The federal government invested approximately $11 billion, or more than $191 billion today when adjusted for inflation.
More than $4 billion (about $70 billion today) was directed at highway, road and street projects, eventually totaling more than 650,000 miles. Maybe you’ve driven the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut; the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina; the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi or the Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles.
WPA crews built 75,000 bridges, many of them small spans to help farmers get their goods to market. New York City’s Triborough Bridge was one of the largest. Projects also included the Boston, New York and Chicago transit systems.
The WPA also had a hand in developing 800 airports and airfields, in addition to 125,000 public buildings and 8,000 parks. Murals and other public artworks also were among the WPA legacy.
Talk about a building boom! The scale of that work remains impressive and something America should be striving for today.
Back in September, President Trump said: “For decades now, Washington has allowed our infrastructure to fall into a state of total decay and disrepair. And it’s time now to build new roads, new bridges, airports, tunnels, highways, and railways all across our great land.” Whether you are a Republican, Democrat or Independent, it’s hard to disagree with the sentiment.
While there are clearly many differences between the America of the 1930s and the nation in the second decade of the 21st century, at least three things remain the same in the transportation arena.
First, the public and private sectors of the U.S. transportation design and construction industry are as much up to the task of major infrastructure modernization as they were in the 1930s. Think of how much our industry has advanced with technology, equipment, materials processes and safety.
The accomplishments of the WPA can inspire our generation to do big things. But we shouldn’t need a Great Depression or a Great Recession as motivation. Building great projects is the right thing to benefit our economy and quality of life, and help our children and grandchildren.
Second, the best way to meet the infrastructure challenges in this century is through a significant boost in direct federal transportation investment and bolstered by a mix of additional funding and financing mechanisms. That means, as a start, President Trump and Congress must provide a permanent Highway Trust Fund revenue solution.
Third, as it has for the last 115 years, ARTBA will continue to be exclusively focused on advancing the industry’s interests before Congress, the White House, federal agencies, the courts, news media and general public.
ARTBA was on the job long before FDR created the WPA, and we will be here after current challenges are solved. Working together, let’s build for the future.