Putting the public to work with public works

Moving ahead with big projects, in good times and bad

November 01, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

I stood on the Prettyboy Dam again recently and looked down at the thrilling — for these parts, anyway — vision of water spilling out of the gates below, crashing into the big plunge pool and sending the metropolitan area's drinking water down the Gunpowder River, its tree canopy just starting to burn autumn around the edges.

About 100 years ago, a municipal water engineer named V. Bernard Siems traveled to northern Baltimore County and hiked along this river until he came upon a high rocky gorge. There, he and others decided, the city of Baltimore should build its next dam, several miles upstream of Loch Raven reservoir, to increase the water supply for all.

The city spent six years in the 1920s purchasing the 7,000-plus acres of farmland and woods that would become the reservoir and forested watershed. Construction started in 1930, and men who had been become unemployed in the Depression, and who were now part of the government's Civilian Conservation Corps, worked on the project until its completion in 1933. Prettyboy put people to work and provided the growing metropolitan area with billions of gallons of water for generations to come. It is no small wonder.

The government spent some money on improvements to the dam in recent years, but it's generally the same as it was when designed early in the last century — a mass of concrete across a gorge, a lake behind it, a river below it, a spectacle for anyone who ever wondered where their tax dollars were going.

I have a recurring thought whenever I visit Prettyboy: that all the big work, all the heavy lifting, was done long ago. Our fathers did it. Our grandfathers did it. Travel around the state and the country, and you see their handiwork everywhere — bridges and tunnels, highways and dams. All we have to do is maintain what they created and we'll be OK. No need for expansion; all the major dots have already been connected. Those smart old birds, like Bernie Siems, knew what they were doing.

Of course, we're not keeping up. The nation's overdue infrastructure repair bills run into the many billions. But now we have — at least for this election cycle — an onslaught of fiscal "conservatives" who believe it's not in America's interest to continue to finance big projects while taking on more debt. The stimulus package, authored by the Obama administration, was a waste of taxpayer dollars, they assert myopically, because it didn't reduce unemployment. We need to sit tight, "get the government out of the way," and let the private sector create jobs.

But there's no indication that's happening, either. So what makes the tea party conservatives think that the private sector is going to come to the rescue and provide secure jobs for them and their children?

Chris Christie, the first-term Republican governor of New Jersey, is emerging as a new hero of the GOP because of his tough talk on spending. As a result of Mr. Christie's belt-tightening, schools in New Jersey, one of the wealthiest states per capita in the nation, are now conducting fundraisers to pay for some of their programs. And Mr. Christie just scrapped the biggest public works project in the nation — a tunnel system across the Hudson River that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey estimates would create 6,000 construction jobs and 45,000 permanent jobs while, according to the Newark Star-Ledger, taking 22,000 vehicles off the road each day and nearly 70,000 tons of greenhouse gasses out of the air each year. The tunnels would have handled an extra 25 trains per hour during peak periods. Do conservatives really believe that dumping this project was a good idea? Is the "private sector" going to step up and take on this project?

Prettyboy Dam was "shovel-ready" at the time of the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, but economic calamity didn't stop the project from going forward. I suppose it could have been delayed, but I find nothing in the public record from that time to indicate a hesitancy to make the investment. William F. Broening was the mayor of Baltimore in the time of Prettyboy's Depression-era planning and construction. He saw the dam completed. He was a Republican, long gone and of a style long gone.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. E-mail: dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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