Perspectives on Federal Spending: Build On, Repair What We Have

New projections of a federal budget surplus have left Washington abuzz 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. Too many of 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; the great national park system is seriously decaying–and this is only the beginning of the list. It is past time to commence a major public works initiative to repair this great storehouse of shared wealth.

Federal, state and local governments 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 hugely inadequate to meet many of our most pressing public works needs.

Consider the following:

– One in three schools across the United States is “in need of extensive repair or replacement,” according to a 1995 General Accounting Office report. Fixing the schools, the GAO estimates, will cost $113 billion over three years.
– The Centers for Disease Control estimates 1 million people become sick every year from bad water, with about 900 deaths occurring. The EPA estimates nearly $140 billion will be needed over the next 20 years for water system
investments to install, upgrade or replace failing drinking water infrastructure.
– 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 modern mass transit system conducive to livable cities, one which will bring community residents closer together, combat the momentum toward sprawl, guarantee lower-income groups the ability to travel efficiently in metropolitan areas, abate air pollution and improve transportation safety.
– As a society we have failed to respect the foresight of Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and other conservationist founders of the national park system, neglecting to invest sufficient resources to maintain, let alone properly expand, the parks. A National Park Service-estimated funding gap of nearly $9 billion has left animal populations at risk, park amenities in substandard or unusable conditions and many national historical artifacts in danger of being lost to posterity.

Investments in public works–those mentioned here, plus others,such as construction of public health clinics, libraries, sewers and courthouses; bridge and road repair, and cleanup efforts of military and nuclear waste sites–make our communities stronger and more closely knit. While many of these community benefits do not accrue in citizens’ personal bank accounts, they do register in direct and discernible improvements in every person’s life. Investing in and protecting our great public assets makes us richer as a nation and a people. Public investments also strengthen the economy
through a better-educated and healthier work force and through efficient transportation of goods and people.

Historically, investments in public works have been a key spur to private wealth creation. A national public works plan, Franklin Roosevelt said in his 1934 State of the Union speech, “will, in a generation or two, return many times the money spent on it . . . More important, it will conserve our natural resources, prevent waste and enable millions of our people to take better advantage of the opportunities which God has given our country.”

This–an era of burgeoning private wealth and large projected public surplus–is the time to reinvigorate our public investments.

Ralph Nader Is a Consumer Advocate and Author of “No Contest: How

the Power Lawyers Are Perverting Justice in America” (Random House,

1996)

Originally published in the Los Angeles Times, July 27, 1999.

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