Built for the People of the United States

The Triborough Bridge was built in 1936 with $44.2 million from the Public Works Administration.
Jet Lowe/Courtesy Library of Congress

In 1931, New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt sat in on a roundtable conversation with the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, RPAA members including Lewis Mumford, Benton MacKaye, and Clarence Stein presented the future president with a powerful argument that fallout from the economic collapse of 1929 might be best attacked by following a “new road” of regional planning at a national scale. The governor seemed sympathetic to their ideas, and helped MacKaye launch his ambitious plans for the Appalachian Trail, which began in New York State.

Two years later, when FDR began the historic 100 days of legislation that kicked off the New Deal, the RPAA’s lobbying seemed to have paid off. Roosevelt placed MacKaye in a planning position with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and selected Stein’s partner, Robert Kohn, as the first head of the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (PWA). But while the RPAA’s progressive goals were embodied in these programs, as the New Deal wore on, its idealism and the scale of its ambition became muddled through political compromises.


MODELED AFTER ENGLISH GARDEN CITIES AND COMPLETED IN 1937, GREENBELT, MARYLAND WAS ONE OF THREE GREENBELT TOWNS CREATED UNDER THE FEDERAL RESETTLEMENT ADMINISTRATION.
COURTESY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Greenbelt Town program, which was supposed to change the face of America with a series of highly rational garden cities, was whittled down to three small projects. And the TVA’s initial steps toward creating a “dynamic regional and interregional economy” were soon shed by its director, Arthur Morgan, who steered the authority toward becoming merely a source of electricity for the industrializing south. This tension—between those with plans to use government action and money to transform the country and those who prefer a more laissez-faire approach focused purely on temporary job creation—is very much alive today as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) works its way through Congress. Like today’s stimulus package, the New Deal started as a jobs-creation program, but it gave rise to profound changes in the landscape and culture that were a natural outgrowth of the era’s newfound belief in the federal government’s ability to play a transformational role. As we debate what many call “the New New Deal,” the lessons of the 1930s remind us that a focus on job creation need not preclude a commitment to the broader progressive agenda that made the New Deal so far-reaching.

The New Deal’s largest and best-known agency, the one that became synonymous with the entire program, was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Enacted in 1935, it received more money and attention than any other of the Roosevelt administration’s initiatives. By 1941, the WPA had spent approximately $11.4 billion ($169 billion in today’s money). Of this massive investment, $4 billion went to highway and street projects; $1 billion to public buildings; $1 billion to publicly owned or operated utilities; and another $1 billion that funded initiatives as varied as school lunch programs, the famous Federal Writers Project, and sent photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans out to document the American landscape. By the time it was disbanded by Congress in 1943 as a result of the manufacturing boom created by World War II, the WPA had provided some eight million jobs and had left its mark on nearly every community in America by way of a park, bridge, housing project, or municipal building.


in 1935, the Public works administration allocated $5 million for the original brooklyn college campus.
courtesy brooklyn college

The magnitude of the change created by the WPA’s modernization program was unprecedented among direct federal interventions, and the current recovery bill has the potential to be as, or more, effective. At this writing, ARRA promises $825 billion in economic stimulus, $275 billion of which is tax cuts and $550 billion of which is actual investment. Much of this $550 billion will go to construction projects to bring America’s flagging schools, health care facilities, and infrastructure up to standard and beyond. A recent analysis of the bill from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the following run-down on infrastructure spending: $30 billion for highways, $9 billion for transit, $1.1 billion for Amtrak, $10 billion for science facilities, $3 billion for airports. The list goes on, including appropriations for clean water and restoration of brownfields, but also money for other architecture-related building work: $16 billion for school modernization, $9 billion for Department of Defense projects like VA hospitals and child care centers, and $2.25 billion for rehabilitating public housing.

While the rough balance of funds in the current bill and the WPA evinces a kinship, they will be disbursed in a very different fashion. Harry Hopkins, FDR’s handpicked director of the WPA, worked directly with the states to evaluate and select projects. Other agencies, such as the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA), also had their own directors, their own budgets, and the power to choose how best to spend them. The money in the current stimulus package will be apportioned to the states not through newly created agencies based in D.C.— as was the case in the 1930s—but by existing formulas. These formulas evaluate the needs of various localities by calculating factors that range from demographics, to income levels, to official reports on structures and efficiencies. The formulas have the benefit of distributing funds by objective measures rather than political ones, as goes one criticism of the WPA. However, these measures change little from year to year, and a formula-based system has done little to address infrastructure failings at a regional or even national scale.


the 1940 segment of manhattan’s east river drive, sketched by hugh ferriss, received a pwa grant for $4.8 million.
from east river drive (federal works agency. 1940)

What has not changed between now and then is the imperative to choose projects that are ready to start construction immediately. What we might call “shovel-ready” projects were a big part of the WPA agenda, and there were a number of regional plans in place, notably those developed by Robert Moses in New York, that captured an enormous share of federal funds. By 1936, New York City was receiving one seventh of the WPA allotment for the entire country, employed 240,000 people with this money, and was considered “the 49th state” within the WPA. Meanwhile other municipalities floundered in their attempts to draw up plans, and the WPA canceled more than 100 major grants to 11 northeast cities because the blueprints for those projects were not ready. Today’s analog is the “Use it or Lose it” provision in the bill that demands the return of funds if they are not put to work within 120 days. Because of this urgency, many are wary that we will spend $100 billion filling potholes.

There are a few significant projects in New York that promise to make a real difference to the region. One is Access to the Region’s Core, or the ARC tunnel, which will improve transportation between New Jersey and Manhattan. East Side Access, a project that will do the same thing for commuters coming from Long Island, is already under construction, but in dire need of funds. The same can be said for the MTA’s 2nd Avenue Subway project. And then there’s the Fulton Street Transit Center, which promised to become a central element of downtown’s redevelopment before the MTA’s own parlous financial situation put it in jeopardy. These projects, which stand to receive substantial stimulus funding, will undoubtedly improve transportation in the New York region and lay the groundwork for increased demand in the future. But what about transportation between New York and Boston, or New York and Chicago? What about developing a framework for wind power in the tri-state area? What about a comprehensive plan for regional watershed management?


the new deal’s heroic ambition is exemplified by the tennessee valley authority’s norris dam, completed in 1936.

There is no agency to think about the changing infrastructure needs of the country as a whole. In 2007, a bill was put forth to do just this: The Infrastructure Investment Bank Act would have established a national institution to evaluate project proposals and assemble investment portfolios to pay for them, much like the World Bank does on a global level. The fact that it did not pass Congress speaks to a reluctance in the U.S. to put planning power in the hands of the federal government—the same reluctance that the RPAA came up against in the 1930s.

One of Roosevelt’s first acts of the New Deal, an act some say he first mentioned at that RPAA roundtable meeting in Virginia, was the creation of the TVA. This ambitious project targeted the poorest part of the country, the one hardest hit by the Depression, and took it upon itself to modernize and reinvigorate it. Through a comprehensive regimen of education and infrastructure building—including the construction of 29 hydroelectric dams and even the building of one town—the TVA turned this rural backwater into the nation’s biggest producer of electricity, and one of the backbones of mobilization during WWII. Though it faced determined opposition, and proposals to implement similar regional plans were shot down across the country, the TVA stands as a high water mark.


After the Interstate Highways Act of 1956, the federal government covered 90 percent of costs for road construction, like the 1963 Alexander Hamilton Bridge.
Jack Boucher/COurtesy Library of Congress

The only time in American history that the federal government has been able to enact a national plan was through the Federal Highway Act of 1956, a project whose skeleton was drafted by the NRA during the Depression. While many today dispute the merit of this program, it is instructive to note that the only way Eisenhower was able to sell the highway act to the country was by declaring it vital to national security.

Today we face not nuclear Armageddon but a danger that could, in the long run, prove all the more crippling: our national infrastructure on the brink of collapse. It seems time to draft our own “new road,” one designed not just to pull us out of economic crisis, but also to lay the groundwork that will carry us undiminished into the future.

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