We cannot make America great again without bold endeavors

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If you want irrefutable proof that federal investments in infrastructure propel the economy, read Felix Rohatyn’s book, “Bold Endeavors.” Rohatyn was the legendary financier who rescued New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s. His concise review of American economic history, originally published in 1996, demonstrates that jobs and payrolls expand when we make bold, even audacious, investments in infrastructure. Think big with the Erie Canal, Transcontinental Railroad, Hoover Dam, and Interstate Highway System.

The Trump administration has officially proposed its own bold endeavor: a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan. Well, maybe not bold, exactly. In reality it’s just $200 billion in direct federal investment, offset by cuts elsewhere. It places the financial onus for large projects on local governments. The plan mostly boils down to highway projects that threaten to drain state and local treasuries without delivering anything close to a return on investment.

{mosads}That’s not bold, it’s blasé. Sadly, the one issue that can unite both political parties — infrastructure — has also been diluted by both. The trademark American vision that once saw a vast continent united by sprawling bridges, modern transportation, and seamless communication has been reduced to a green eye-shaded chintziness. We’ve gone from “giant leaps” to half steps. The American vernacular has gone from “can do” to “too hard,” “too expensive,” and “too complicated.”

We betray both our history and future with such pettiness. I’m writing this in New York City. The reason it’s a world capital is because of Buffalo. In the early 19th century, our leaders understood that we couldn’t have a competitive economy unless we could move goods and people from the East Coast in New York City to what was then the West Coast on Lake Erie.

The Erie Canal was an engineering marvel that nourished a middle class for 40 years. Then, Abraham Lincoln linked the east coast to California with the Transcontinental Railroad. We built our way out of the Great Depression with the Hoover Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Rural Electrification Agency, the Works Progress Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower was faced with a major jobs crisis. During and after World War II, America thrived on a wartime industrial production economy building, welding, riveting, assembling and manufacturing the weapons that defeated the Axis Powers. By the 1950s, those World War II weapons systems were outdated and unnecessary. Millions of Americans were on the verge of unemployment.

So Eisenhower created a new generation of jobs designing, assembling and constructing the federal interstate highway system. We literally paved the way for our modern economy. Then, when the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik and beat us in that leg of the Space Race, we didn’t back down. We doubled down. In 1962, John F. Kennedy pledged that Americans would go to the moon by the end of the decade. Mission accomplished.

Compare those bold endeavors to today’s infrastructure. More than 100,000 bridges are in disrepair. The nation has a frail and feeble electric grid, and lagging broadband deployment. Travelers deal with shoddy airports and longer air-traffic delays. According to estimates, every dollar invested in infrastructure returns $1.50 to $3.00 to the economy, and every $1 billion we invest in new infrastructure creates 13,000 jobs.

But consider the intangible value added. First, there is the cohesion of a society bound to common purpose in workplaces across the country. When we build together, our melting pot fires furnaces. Second, there is the psychological impact of our daily surroundings. Once we looked out our windows and saw relentless signs of vitality and optimism. We saw new bridges, tunnels, roads, modern trains and planes. We saw people building our public works, which were monuments to their private skills. Now we see potholes, rust, corrosion and decay.

Once we saw our future. Now we see our distant past. Our founders refused to shirk or shift their responsibility to build America. President Kennedy didn’t summon America to greatness by saying, “We can’t send man to the moon so we’ll send a bus to Des Moines.

He said, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

It’s regrettable that President Trump, whose private enterprises sought to build bigger, higher and more beautiful than its competitors, has given America the likes of a “do it yourself” project at the Home Depot. You can’t make America great again without bold endeavors.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April 2018.

Tags Donald Trump Infrastructure Steve Israel Transportation White House

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