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Ralph Nader > Special Features > Letter to President Clinton and Senate and Congressional Leadership on Government Surplus Spending

Letter to President Clinton and Senate and Congressional Leadership on Government Surplus Spending

July 19, 1999

President William Clinton
The White House
Washington, D.C. 20500

The Honorable Trent Lott
Majority Leader
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Dennis Hastert
House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Richard Gephardt
Minority Leader
House of Representatives Washington, DC 20515

Dear Gentlemen:

New projections of a federal government budget surplus have left Washington aswirl with proposals on how the government should allocate hundreds of billions of dollars.

Strikingly absent from the debate are recommendations to revitalize our commonwealth by investing in a public works program.

At no time in recent history has a program to construct, rebuild or repair crumbling bridges, schools, drinking water facilities, sewer lines, docks, parks, mass transit systems, libraries, clinics, courthouses and other public amenities and infrastructure been so urgent or achievable. Our roads and bridges are decrepit, school roofs across the nation are leaking or falling in, the public water system does not deliver safe drinking water for millions, the reach of public transportation systems is dwindling, even the great national park system is decaying. It is now past time to commence a major public works initiative to repair societys great storehouse of shared wealth. This is a wealth-creating proposal — one that should have appeal across partisan lines — that would enrich the entire society. It would be a serious mistake to denigrate public works as a sop to government bureaucrats or “just another government-spending program.”

We are all impoverished when a metropolitan water system cannot deliver clean drinking water. And we are all enriched by a system of well-maintained national parks that enable us to appreciate the great outdoors, recreate and protect unique ecosystems. These are the components of a commonwealth in which we all have a stake. Such public deficits and assets may not appear in personal financial portfolios, but no one should doubt the profound effect they have on the quality of our lives.

Not incidentally, meeting these and other public demands — drinking water, roads, bridges, sewers — also strengthens the economy. The economy benefits from a better educated and healthier workforce, and from efficient transportation of goods and people.

The benefits of public works are spread broadly. They are not confined to the corporate oligarchy, but nor do they concentrate among the poor. Unlike the narrowly tailored subsidies of corporate welfare, where benefits are captured by special interests, public works enhances the
well-being of the entire society.

Will you issue a clarion call to carve out of the projected federal budget surplus sufficient sums to fund a meaningful public works program?

Federal, state and local governments of course already spend substantial funds on various public works projects, most notably highway construction. And a modest debate is now percolating on federal support for school building construction. But current expenditures are inadequate to meet many of our most pressing public works needs. It should be noted that these expenditures are made in isolation, absent a context of a comprehensive public works agenda which emphasizes the importance of investing in our commonwealth.

A brief review of the ongoing disintegration of the publics shared physical assets highlights the urgent need for bold leadership to direct public monies into public works.


One in three schools across the United States — a country that prides itself on its tradition of public schooling and puts education at the center of its “Only in America” and equal opportunity national narratives — is “in need of extensive repair or replacement,” according to a 1995
General Accountin Office report.

One in three students — approximately 14 million nationwide — attend schools with at least one inadequate building.

Fixing the schools, GAO estimates, will cost $113 billion.

Sixty percent of schoolchildren — more than 25 million — attend schools with at least one inadequate building feature. Most of the schools with at least one problem suffer from multiple inadequate features in need of repair.

Students sitting in classes in hallways, closets and makeshift classrooms that substitute for leaking or otherwise unusable classrooms are not in an environment conducive to learning, focused attention and intellectual engagement. Improving education is on the lips of every politician in Washington, D.C. But a prerequisite to any serious effort to educate the countrys children to be creative, inventive and dynamic workers, entrepreneurs, consumers and citizens is providing them with functioning physical facilities.


It is one thing to travel to a poor developing country and be told not to drink the water. But to live in the richest country in the history of the world and be warned to boil water before drinking it, or not to drink it at all, is quite another.

Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Austin, New York City and many other cities have in recent years had to ask residents not to drink unboiled water, due to microbiological and chemical contaminants. These alerts portend much more serious problems in the years ahead if prompt action is not taken to improve the nations drinking water systems

The Milwaukee cryptosporidium outbreak in 1993 alone sickened more than 400,00 and killed 111 people. The Centers for Disease Control estimates one million get sick every year from bad water, with about 900 deaths occurring. Other estimates range far higher, suggesting as many as 7 million may become sick every year due to bad water. The poor, the young, the elderly and the ill are most victimized by unsafe water.

Given the nations failure in recent times to invest sufficiently to protect drinking water supplies and systems of provision, substantial sums will be needed to guarantee clean water to all. The EPA estimates nearly $140 billion will be needed over the next 20 years for water system
investments to install, upgrade or replace infrastructure.

That the water provision system has deteriorated to this point is a national disgrace. Earlier generations, seeking to advance the interest of public health and to better community life, bequeathed to us working water systems. In our short-sightedness, we have failed to invest in upkeep. But further delay brings with it greater expense, severe damage to public health and the deepening of an ugly class divide based on access to the stuff of healthy living.


The country has an equally urgent need to restore, renovate and improve the other half of the water management equation — the nation’s sewer and wastewater disposal system.

Backlogged sewers, overflowing and belching raw sewage into the streets and homes, are now commonplace in many American cities. Five years ago, San Francisco authorities estimated two dozen occurrences a year.

Sewer systems are inadequate to handle flows, and cracking sewer lines are prevalent. Massive sewer line cave-ins that swallow the earth above, occasionally plunging people above to gruesome deaths below, grab the television cameras, but the more pervasive problem is the comparatively standard overflows, which pose serious health threats through spread of
bacteria, viruses and other pathogens.

More than $72 billion is needed for sewer repair and enhancement over the next two decades, according to the EPA. The agency estimates the overall cost of needed investment in publicly owned wastewater treatment systems at approximately $140 billion.


Although the national highway system is amply funded, there is a risk that investments in new roads, many of them perhaps unneeded, will come at the expense of repair of existing roads and bridges. Leaving the highways and bridges in shoddy condition will impose major costs on car owners, impede efficient transport and pose safety hazards to drivers and passengers.

Poor roads cost American drivers $5.9 billion annually, in terms of wear and tear, repair expenses and decreased fuel economy, estimates the Washington, D.C.-based Surface Transportation Policy Project. Over the life of a car, drivers in Rhode Island will pay an extra $904 due to poor road conditions, according to Surface Transportation Policy Project
calculations. The ” pothole tax” is $857 in California, $723 in Colorado, $711 in Maryland and $674 in Illinois. How about efforts by the federal government to reduce this tax?

Meanwhile, with the phrase “bridge to the twenty-first century” ringing in our ears, the nation’s actual bridges are deteriorating badly. Bridges bring people together, they facilitate commerce, they enhance efficiency in commercial and personal transport and they must guarantee safe travel. Yet more than 50,000 bridges were deficient in 1996, according to the National Bridge Inventory — and that marked an improvement from figures earlier in the decade. Fixing the nation’s bridges will require an investment of approximately $200 billion over the next 20 years, according to the Department of Transportation.


In a nation whose history has depended so heavily on transit and transportation, it is especially disturbing to note the declining use and underinvestment in mass transit.

Maintaining the public transit system at current levels, the Department of Transportation estimates, will cost $9.7 billion a year. Improving the infrastructure to a condition of “good” would require upping annual expenditures to $14.2 billion a year.

However, maintaining or slightly upgrading the public transit is not nearly enough. Bold new investments are needed to create a mass transit system conducive to livable cities, one which brings community residents closer together, combats the momentum towards sprawl, guarantees lower-income groups the ability to travel efficiently in metropolitan areas, abates air pollution and improves transportation safety.

Thanks to a GM-led conspiracy involving Standard Oil, Firestone, Greyhound and Mack Truck, many cities abandoned the core urban mass transit systems they had created by the early part of this century. As a Senate Judiciary subcommittee documented in important hearings in 1974, the conspirators, operating through a holding company, purchased trolley lines across the country, and then ripped up tracks and dismantled the trolley systems. In a case brought by the Justice Department, a federal jury in 1949 convicted GM and others of conspiring to dismantle trolley lines throughout the country. Over a 100 trolley systems in more than 45 cities were dismantled. Only a handful of Eastern cities still maintain subway and light rail systems that provide efficient transport for urban residents, and even these systems have serious deficiencies.

To again build a vibrant public transit system, the first emphasis in new investment should be on bus service. Much more frequent bus service is needed to connect poorer urban areas to other parts of the metropolis, so that poor residents are not consigned, apartheid-style, to isolated
ghettos requiring two hours of travel each way to areas where jobs are located. Much more frequent bus service is also needed so that bus travel appears as a viable option to the middle class, which, if made to wait long periods for a bus to arrive, will simply opt out of the system in
favor of private transport. And more bus service is needed to connect suburban commuters to train lines, so that they feel able to rely on public transit to take them to work and to downtown civic and social events.

Following the sharp increase in bus service investments should come a major increase in investments in subways, trolleys and light rail. Priority should be given to ensuring that rail systems fully serve all urban residents, including those in lower-income and minority areas —
sections of town often left off the transit grid.

There also must be a renewed commitment to Amtrak, and efficient and affordable rail travel between cities. The social cost of moving people between cities overwhelmingly by car is simply too high in terms of air pollution, greenhouse warming and auto accidents. Investment in rail
should be given clear priority over investments in widening interstates.

These three elements — bus service, subways/light rail and heavy rail — should be part of an integrated plan to make metropolitan and intercity travel by public transport safe, easy, efficient, affordable and at least as desirable as auto transport. This integrated approach must be a central
component of a vision to create livable cities, with reduced sprawl, pollution and congestion and enhanced equity, mobility and neighborliness.

The cost will be high, but as a nation we now have the opportunity to enhance the public realm enormously with intelligent, foresighted investments in a public transit system that will improve community life and peoples individual sense of well-being for the next century. A
meaningful investment in this shared resource will leave future generations wondering how previous ones managed to function without an effective mass transit system — just as we now take for granted that public bodies should provide clean drinking water.


Nothing better represents our common heritage and wealth than the national park system, as well as state and local parks. Their value is registered not in contribution to the gross national product, but in the stunning vistas, natural beauty, contemplation-stimulating atmosphere and
protection of vibrant ecosystems.

As a society we have failed to respect the foresight of Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and the other conservationist founders of the national park system, failing to invest sufficient resources to maintain, let alone properly expand, the parks. As a result, the Park Service estimates an investment backlog of $5.6 billion for construction and maintenance, $2 billion for resource protection and $1.2 billion for land acquisition; and more is needed for increasing the park ranger staff commensurate with increased park usage. As a result of this underfunding,
animal populations are at risk, park amenities are substandard or unusable and many national historical artifacts are in danger of being lost to posterity.

Of course, there are many parks other than those under federal control. The nations great municipal parks — whether on the scale of New Yorks Central Park or small single lots — provide public space for recline and reflection, green space amidst the citys asphalt, glass and concrete and an opportunity for public gathering. It is depressing to travel from city
to city and witness once-glittering parks now deteriorated, improperly maintained, and viewed by the public as unsafe.

In a society as rich as ours, with government budgets in surplus, is it asking too much for sufficient investments to be made in the local parks which bring us together as communities?


Two decades after Lois Gibbs and the residents of Love Canal forcefully educated the nation as to the horrifying effects of hazardous waste dumping, Jonathan Haars A Civil Action and the subsequent movie have again reminded Americans that we face a slow-motion toxic crisis, as hazardous wastes and toxic substances in pits, tanks and dumps across the nation seep into and poison the groundwater — and eventually into drinking water supplies.

Of tens of thousands of hazardous waste sites, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified 1,200 sites for inclusion on its National Priorities List of seriously contaminated sites needing cleanup under the Superfund program. On the basis of preliminary evaluation, the EPA and the General Accounting Office judge another 1,800 sites as potentially eligible for the National Priorities List.

The exact cost of cleaning up the nations hazardous waste sites is unknowable, because of the uncertainty that surrounds the problem — how many other sites there are, the extent of toxic seepage out of dump sites, exactly what substances have been dumped where, etc. — but what is knowable is that massive resources are required. The National Research Council in 1997 cited estimates of a total cost of cleaning up 300,000 to 400,000 contaminated sites at $500 billion to $1 trillion, over a 75-year period.

Proper application of the “polluter pays” principle, through the Superfund and other programs, means that much of this cost can be allocated to private parties. But there is no question that an increase in government spending on both enforcement of laws and cleanup is necessary.

Hazardous waste pollution is a problem that will not go away on its own. Treated inadequately, the problem will only grow worse, and remedial action more expensive, as the toxic migration continues.


The military is the single largest hazardous waste polluter in the United States. Approximately 100 military sites are on the EPA’s National Priorities List, and the Department of Defense says there are more than 11,000 toxic sites at military facilities.

These sites pose the same kinds of health risks as private toxic sites, and demand the same urgent action to protect human health and the environment. In addition to the wide range of toxic chemicals, solvents, metals and fuels spilled and inadequately stored at military bases around
the country, the military faces the unique clean up responsibility of unexploded ordnance.

The exact cost of cleaning up military bases is unknown, with the Pentagon consistently underestimating expenses, according to the GAO. Total cleanup costs seem likely to run into the tens of billions, and quite possibly higher.

The biggest military pollution legacy, however, is connected to the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons complex. The GAO estimates that cleanup of these sites may cost $1 trillion. Vast swaths of territory at the nuclear weapons sites are contaminated with radiation, but most
worrisome is the rapid migration of radioactive waste — including cesium, strontium, tritium, technetium, iodine, plutonium and uranium — through soil and rocks into groundwater.

Unless we act soon, we will consign much of our land, water and population to a radioactive future.


Investments in public works — those mentioned here, plus others, such as public health clinics, libraries and courthouses — contribute to both individual and community well-being. They make our our schools better, our drinking water safer, our roads less congested, our communities stronger and more closely knit. They also make our environment cleaner and our economy stronger.

While many of these community benefits do not accrue in citizens personal bank accounts, they do register in direct and discernible improvements in every persons life. Investing in and protecting our public assets makes us richer as a nation and a people — and it also enriches individuals as surely as does a tax cut.

The federal governments current projected bounty offers a unique opportunity to make up for years of neglect in public works investment, and to pass on to future generations a healthy and enhanced commonwealth that can in turn be nurtured, expanded and handed to still subsequent
generations. Whatever prosperity and quality of life we now enjoy can be traced in no small part to similar expressions of foresight by prior generations.

Who among you stands ready to show courage and exercise leadership on this crucial matter? Who will break away from the conventional debate over use of the projected surplus to sketch a vision of long-term investment in our basic public assets?

I look forward to your response.


Ralph Nader

P. O. Box 19312
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: 202-387-8034