Neglecting Our Infrastructure

Rush hour traffic, San Francisco, Calif

Rush hour traffic, San Francisco, Calif
Gridlock has become common in American cities

During a recent crawl through San Francisco’s ever-lengthening rush hour, I had plenty of time to contemplate how the city’s much-ballyhooed growth of high-rise offices and housing is far outstripping the capacity of the region’s roads, transit, water, and above all, emergency services.

Civilization is built on sewers, which, like bridges, roads, and dams, are built on taxes. It’s a simple connection that those such as the late California politician Howard Jarvis and Ronald Reagan, as both governor and president, persuaded us to sever and forget.  We are all paying an ever-mounting price for doing so.

It’s not just that Republican opposition to taxes of almost any kind that has throttled the U.S. Highway Trust Fund and the Mass Transit Account, further adding to the gridlock. Recent catastrophic water breaks  other parts of the country are another sign of how close to disaster we are skating. Every year the American Society of Civil Engineers gives U.S. infrastructure a flunking grade, and it’s getting worse.

A recent water main break in Los Angeles

A recent water main break in Los Angeles
Infrastructure is breaking down due to lack of investment

Few are aware that much of the infrastructure on which everyone depends was built eighty years ago by the New Deal.  That ten-year spasm of public spending extricated the U.S. from the Great Depression by creating millions of jobs and stimulating the domestic construction industry.  Its benefits to the economy were felt immediately after the war and continue to the present day.

Think of it as the government covering the overhead costs of development and thus raising the value of land for the private sector — a cost not being covered today.

WPA workers construct the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, 1937

WPA at Work
WPA workers construct the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, 1937

WPA workers, for example, surveyed what lay beneath San Francisco’s Market Street to prepare for a subway system for both the city’s public transit and the regional Bay Area Transit (BART) systems. New Deal agencies connected the entire Bay Area with the construction of the Bay Bridge and the roads leading to the Golden Gate Bridge. At the same time, the Public Works Administration completed the Hetch Hetchy water system to serve 2.5 million future San Franciscans.

With the exception of a new cross-town subway and a yet-to-be-funded bullet train between San Francisco and Los Angeles, nothing of comparable scale is being built, while existing infrastructure falls into ruin. The same holds true for many other “successful” cities today.

Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed, “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” Taxes are also what we pay for a healthy economy. We apparently have decided that we need neither today. 


Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

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And the Winners are . . .

FDR delivering one of his fireside chats.

The 2023 New Deal Book Award

The winning titles and authors have been announced. The 2023 Award, with a prize of $1,000, will be presented at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library June 22, 2024.