Posted: November 25, 2009
Work in progress
Barack Obama aims to boost the economy with public-works jobs, infrastructure spending and investments in education and energy. Will Colorado fare as well as it did under FDR?By Eric Peterson
A U.S. government WPA steam shovel at the Lowry Field Project near East Sixth Avenue and Quebec Street in Denver
As he begins his presidency, Barack Obama faces the bleakest economic landscape since the country entrusted Franklin Delano Roosevelt to rebuild the nation from the fiscal train wreck that ended the Roaring Twenties. As the Obama administration puts its economic stimulus in play, FDR’s New Deal looms large — as both a prototype and a cautionary tale. In the months following Inauguration Day in 1933, the federal government essentially put a “Help Wanted” sign up and started hiring workers for the first card of the New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps. “In creating this Civilian Conservation Corps, we are killing two birds with one stone,” Roosevelt said during one of his first presidential radio addresses. “We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources, and second, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress.”
Today as we stare into an economic abyss resembling the financial landscape of the 1930s, Obama has taken a similar position to FDR, signaling the need for a New Deal-like federal investment into the nation’s infrastructure to create millions of new jobs. “We won’t just throw money at the problem,” Obama proclaimed in a Dec. 6 address. “We’ll measure progress by the reforms we make and the results we achieve — by the jobs we create, by the energy we save, by whether America is more competitive in the world.”
READY TO GO: JUST ADD MONEY
In early December, Gov. Bill Ritter submitted a nonprioritized list of 160 projects totaling $1.16 billion in funding to the Obama transition team, including a $400,000 sidewalk improvement in Cheyenne Wells, $88 million worth of projects at Union Station in Denver, and a $210 million reconstruction of I-270. “This was done at the request of the Obama transition team,” Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer says. “They’re looking for projects that are ‘ready to go’ within 180 days after Inauguration Day.” The state is in dire need of federal support for transportation projects, Dreyer says. “Colorado’s transportation budget is predicted to decline by a third — $400 million — in the next fiscal year, because of federal cuts and a decline in tax revenue. The transportation bucket is the first to drain when revenues are down. When revenues go up, it’s the last bucket to fill. That bucket is just not going to fill up this time around. "We also have an immediate need to stimulate the economy and create jobs,” he adds. “Our first desire is to put Coloradans to work on Colorado projects.” Dreyer says $1 billion in spending on transportation infrastructure projects equates to 35,000 to 40,000 jobs. While that figure is debatable, another is not: National construction employment is off about 800,000 jobs from its September 2006 peak. That means only a $20 billion sliver of a $1 trillion package would be necessary to restore the sector in all 50 states. But will the skill sets of those who are thrown out of work be a good match for a massive package of construction projects? If there is a sudden spike in unemployed financial planners, car salespeople and journalists, will these folks be up to the task of building transportation and energy infrastructure for the 21st century? “It’s a good question,” Dreyer says.
PUTTING THE COUNTRY BACK TO WORK
After FDR took the reins at the White House in 1933, he immediately targeted the nation’s severe unemployment, which was nearing 25 percent, with massive spending on public works projects. The Civilian Conservation Corps was established immediately after Inauguration Day in March 1933 and, by the time it ceased operations in 1942, the CCC had employed 3 million people, mostly unskilled young men. The broader and larger Works Progress Administration was established next, encompassing not only public works but also arts, music, education, agriculture and other areas. The largest New Deal agency, the WPA employed a peak of 3.3 million people nationally in 1938 and more than 8 million in all — in the process building 650,000 miles of roads, performing 225,000 concerts and creating a half-million works of art. Roosevelt had his share of critics. Republican opposition to massive New Deal spending prompted him to pull back, a move blamed with spurring a recession in 1937 and 1938. Some also questioned the huge transfer of power from the private sector to the government. At the other extreme, some Democrats criticized the New Deal for not doing enough to redistribute wealth but focusing primarily on saving capitalism and promoting big business.
In the Colorado of the 1930s, falling prices for agricultural and mining exports sparked an economic crisis. Numerous farms became unprofitable, and the Dust Bowl exacerbated an already bad situation. A great many people found themselves economic refugees, looking for a new home and means to make a living. To boost employment, the federal government established 40 CCC companies in Colorado and Wyoming. Between 1935 and 1941, the WPA completed more than 5,000 projects in Colorado at a cost of $100 million. Another agency, the Public Works Administration, was also active. In all, Colorado received more New Deal money per capita than any state but Washington and was 10th in overall dollars spent. Colorado historian Tom Noel says this is a tad ironic, because most Colorado politicians opposed the New Deal. “Our politicians did not support (the New Deal), but we actually made more out of it, largely because of the outdoor focus,” Noel says. Western states received more New Deal money in general because of a deeper inventory of public lands than Eastern states. Of all the New Deal projects in Colorado, one tends to receive the lion’s share of the attention: Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre in Morrison. “Red Rocks is kind of the poster child, but so many things were aided one way or another,” Noel says. “Almost any kind of public project that needed money got money.”
Other New Deal projects included “the best guidebook ever produced about Colorado,” says Noel, titled “Colorado: A Guide to the Highest State,” and the meticulous dioramas at the Colorado History Museum depicting Denver in 1860 and other local landscapes. These resulted from Federal Project Number One, aka Federal One, which included five WPA-backed projects: the Federal Writers’ Project, the Historical Records Survey, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Music Project and the Federal Art Project. The people behind Federal One projects were “unemployed artists, architects, historians, journalists and writers,” Noel says. “Those kinds of folks often suffer during a depression.” Noel also points to Waverly, one of many towns created from the ground up to resettle 1930s refugees of the Dust Bowl, marked by ferocious dust storms fueled by bad agricultural practices. The storms uprooted 2.5 million people, mostly from ravaged states southeast of Colorado, and the federal government built brand-new municipalities to accommodate them. “It was almost like the Tennessee Valley Authority where they got people their first running water and electricity,” Noel says.
Another result of the Dust Bowl was the federal purchase of ravaged farmland and making it Comanche and Pawnee national grasslands. “Environmental historians make a big deal of that,” Noel says. “This was a desert. You can’t turn it into the Garden of Eden.” For this reason, Colorado — and the West as a whole — became decidedly more urban during the Great Depression. “People moved to cities in Colorado,” Noel says. “You saw a dramatic rise in the number of ghost towns, not just in the mountains, but on the plains.”
DELIVERING OBAMA’S ‘NEW DEAL’
Two-thirds of a century after the WPA was mothballed — following nearly 2.7 million jobs lost nationally in 2008, 40,000 of them in Colorado — pundits are waxing rhapsodic on what they’d like to see in a New Deal sequel directed by Obama. A long and perhaps overly hopeful wish list has taken shape, and it includes everything from a national high-speed rail system to a healthier school-lunch program. In his Dec. 6 address, Obama announced a few key specifics about his plan: “a massive effort to make public buildings more energy-efficient,” “the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s,” and “the most sweeping effort to modernize and upgrade school buildings that this country has ever seen.” Obama also pledged to upgrade the nation’s broadband infrastructure and ensure the health-care industry makes use of the latest and greatest information technology. Signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act resulted in more than $100 billion in federal spending on 40,000 miles of roads throughout the country. It looks like a similar highway reconstruction act could top that dollar figure: In November, U.S. governors said that about $136 billion worth of projects could be started as soon as funding became available. A recent report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials estimated that some 1.8 million new jobs would be created if $64 billion worth of projects that are currently “ready to go” were funded.
Observers believe Obama’s package — which could hit $1 trillion — also could include as much as $100 billion invested into green energy projects, catalyzing the creation of as many as 2 million new jobs. Colorado, home to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, would be well positioned in such an initiative. Another possible spending push mentioned in D.C. that would skew spending toward Colorado: clearing the backlog of maintenance projects in the national parks. Colorado is home to four of the 58 total parks in the system. But the sky is clearly not the limit. If money weren’t an issue, none of the above would have languished without funding for years.
THINKING BIG FOR THE FUTURE
“One legacy of the New Deal people don’t recognize was that long-range planning became more prevalent, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper says. “The value of planning, the sense you could create a place that was beautiful, that place matters — that idea emerged.” Ben Stapleton, Denver’s mayor from 1923 to 1931 and 1935 to 1947, took the opportunity to finish the “City Beautiful” projects of Robert Speer, Stapleton’s mayoral predecessor in the early 20th century. “They also put a lot of effort into Denver Mountain Parks and improving the parkway system,” Hickenlooper says. Hickenlooper believes $1 billion in bonds for infrastructure passed in the last two years put Denver in a good position to weather the storm. The $550 million Better Denver Bond funds more than 200 projects, and Denver Public Schools’ $454 million bond will fund critical repairs and upgrades at existing schools and construction of two new ones. “We are well situated,” Hickenlooper says. “We have the opportunity to have our own stimulus. We didn’t think it was going to get this bad, but we started accelerating (Better Denver) six months ago. “We recently rolled out our Strategic Transportation Plan” that looks ahead to 2015 and 2030, he adds. “The key ingredient is that it’s regional. Like FasTracks, it’s not a state project, and it’s not a city project. That collaborative approach is going to be the model for planning in the future. City- and state-level planning is kind of a dinosaur.” Hickenlooper says he’s hopeful there won’t be a mismatch between the unemployed and the jobs created by an Obama stimulus package. “I don’t think they’ll stop at just roads and bridges,” he says, while noting the “need to create jobs for those who take showers at the end of the day” first and foremost.
NEW DEAL FOR NEW ENERGY
Alternative and conservation-oriented energy projects will likely see increased funding under the Obama administration’s plan, with a heightened focus on wind, solar and geothermal generation in Colorado. Experts say the U.S. is in need of a new nationwide grid that’s both smart and sustainable. But it would require every bit of the $1 trillion. Smaller investments could spur energy-efficient retrofitting of existing structures. Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer highlights natural gas pipelines and transmission lines for wind power as Colorado’s top priorities. Federal investment also could cover FasTracks shortfalls locally and spur more public transportation nationally. It could also improve the nation’s school lunch program, as advised by writer Michael Pollan, in tandem with a mandate for locally grown ingredients, rather than treating the school lunch program as a dumping ground for surplus. Such an initiative would not only be a booster shot in the arm for small farms, but it also could contribute to long-term unburdening of the health-care system by teaching students healthy eating habits at a young age.
New Deal-like breadth might well be necessary, considering 2008 saw staggering job losses at automobile dealerships (more than 100,000 jobs lost), newspapers (more than 15,000), and financial services (150,000). ColoradoBiz’s two cents to the architects of New Deal II: Think big — and think about how investment now could correct systemic problems in health care and energy in the future.
WILL FIX PARKS FOR FOOD
Historian Tom Noel has words of advice for Obama as well. “They ought to beef up AmeriCorps and turn it into a new CCC,” he says. “All the people with ‘will work for food’ signs, why not round them up and put them to work? Denver’s city parks are $93 million in arrears in delayed maintenance. Our infrastructure is in bad shape. Fixing inner-city schools, I’d like to see a lot of that kind of work. You’d like to think even conservatives would be open to that. “The New Deal put money into the bottom, and now we’re putting money into the top with these bailouts and golden parachutes,” says Noel, noting that New Deal-era CCC workers received $30 in monthly salary and sent $25 of it back to their parents. “They were really hiring unemployed teenagers.” Noel is hoping the new administration will take that cue, shifting the government’s focus from corporate bailouts to the workers who fuel the economy. “You’re priming the pump at the top and hoping it will trickle down to the bottom. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that works too well. I’m just hoping that Obama will put the money in at the bottom and not at the top.”
Colorado's original New Deal
Winter Park Ski Resort
During the 1930s and early 1940s, Works Progress Administration crews built 400 structures in Colorado, including schools, sewage plants and dams, and 9,000 miles of new roads. The banks of the Platte River and Cherry Creek in Denver were shored up with riprap, Stapleton Airport and Fitzsimons Medical Center were expanded and Lowry Field was built. The Big Thompson water project came into existence. Oh, yeah, and between 1936 and 1941, a CCC company in Morrison built Red Rocks Amphitheatre, one of Colorado’s crown jewels to this day.
Other CCC projects in Colorado included soil erosion mitigation, forestry work and stabilization of irrigation systems. In the state and national parks, projects included work on roads, trails, campgrounds and other facilities. Additional programs served students lunch and canned produce.
A FEW NEW DEAL HIGHLIGHTS IN COLORADO:
U.S. 6 over Vail Pass: WPA funding helped pave the road over the 10,666-foot pass, which opened to auto traffic in 1940.
Winter Park Ski Area: Numerous Denver Mountain Parks projects were funded with New Deal Money, including the slopes at Winter Park.
Stapleton Airport: New runways were built at Denver’s former airport.
Rimrock Road, Colorado National Monument: CCC and WPA crews worked on the serpentine road until World War II.
Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison: Between 1936 and 1941, CCC workers built what is now considered one of the best outdoor music venues in the world.
Colorado-Big Thompson Water Project: Built in part by the WPA, this massive diversion project includes more than 100 structures that pump water from the mountains to the plains.
Lowry Field: The WPA converted the former Agnes Memorial Sanatorium into the modern airfield at the former Lowry Air Force Base in 1937-38.
Fitzsimons Medical Center: The former Army medical center was expanded.
Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com