Road and bridge projects worked to put Americans to work during Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program in the 1930s - can the concept can work again 70 years later?
President-elect Barack Obama indicated that he is on-board with the idea of stimulating the economy through a massive federal spending program to upgrade the nation's highway infrastructure, as well as undertake green projects like retrofitting homes and businesses with insulation, while encouraging the use of renewable energy.
The spending plan ranges from $600 billion to $850 billion - and the higher amount would rival (in adjusted dollars) what was spent on public works projects during the Great Depression.
"Yesterday," Obama said Dec. 6, "we received another painful reminder of the serious economic challenge our country is facing when we learned that 533,000 jobs were lost in November alone, the single worst month of job loss in over three decades. That puts the total number of jobs lost in this recession at nearly 2 million."
Obama continued: "We need action - and action now. That is why I have asked my economic team to develop an economic recovery plan for both Wall Street and Main Street that will help save or create at least two and a half million jobs, while rebuilding our infrastructure, improving our schools, reducing our dependence on oil, and saving billions of dollars."
The president-elect's plans offers plenty for the building trades, and not just the road-building sector. Obama proposed:
Launching "a massive effort to make public buildings more energy-efficient. Our government now pays the highest energy bill in the world. We need to change that. We need to upgrade our federal buildings by replacing old heating systems and installing efficient light bulbs. That won't just save you, the American taxpayer, billions of dollars each year. It will put people back to work."
Second, he said. "we will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. We'll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we'll set a simple rule - use it or lose it. If a state doesn't act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they'll lose the money."
Third, Obama said, "my economic recovery plan will launch the most sweeping effort to modernize and upgrade school buildings that this country has ever seen. We will repair broken schools, make them energy-efficient, and put new computers in our classrooms. Because to help our children compete in a 21st century economy, we need to send them to 21st century schools."
Obama said when Congress reconvenes in January, "I look forward to working with them to pass a plan immediately."
Detractors to using construction projects as the centerpiece for economic stimulus in the U.S. say road, bridge and other public works projects would take too long to develop and wouldn't provide a quick or effective bang for the buck.
That may have been the case in the past, but a report issued Dec. 5 by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials said state highway departments have about $64 billion in building plans, ready to go within 90 days, after putting them off due to budget constraints.
"This survey shows that state DOTs are ready to quickly put the economic stimulus dollars and people to work," said John Horsley, AASHTO executive director. "Right now 41 states are facing budget shortfalls and many of our state departments of transportation have had no choice but to delay critical projects…."
According to the survey, Michigan has 208 "ready to go" highway projects that would cost $1.75 billion - ranking us No. 8 in the nation in dollar amounts.
To help move the construction spending process along, The Associated General Contractors of America on Dec. 11 launched a new national effort designed to show broad support for needed new infrastructure investments.
Stephen Sandherr, the association's chief executive officer, said the effort is necessary because more than 770,000 construction workers have lost their jobs over the past two years. "We want to build a foundation of support for new infrastructure investments that is as strong as it is necessary," said Sandherr.
He said that investing in new infrastructure would have significant, positive, long-term benefits for the U.S. economy. Cutting congestion, improving education and health care facilities, cleaning water supplies and improving levies will improve America's ability to compete globally. He added that the economic slowdown has led to declines in construction material prices, meaning taxpayers will get a better deal on investments made next year.
As part of the effort, the association has begun a new advertising campaign, new outreach to construction workers, their suppliers and business partners, and new efforts to build support from local and state officials.