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Great infrastructure projects demand vision, financial creativity, and political skill.

How Our Government Built America, and Why It Must Rebuild Now
by Felix Rohatyn
Simon & Schuster, 259 page

The Department of Transportation is seldom a priority stop for presidents. But when Barack Obama visited last month, he came to underscore the commitment to upgrading U.S. infrastructure contained in the ambitious new $787 billion stimulus package. Twenty-eight billion dollars are being allocated to the improvement of American highways, the largest road investment since the interstate system was built. Even as he spoke, Obama said, “we are seeing shovels hit the ground.”

For Felix Rohatyn, the financier and author of Bold Endeavors, strong federal involvement is precisely what is needed for a country whose roads, railways, bridges, airports, dams, and waterlines are “rapidly and dangerously deteriorating.” As a member of the Commission on Public Infrastructure at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank, Rohatyn is impassioned about the urgency of the situation. Rebuilding U.S. infrastructure “is a critical national priority” but will succeed only “if it is directed, coordinated, and largely financed by the federal government.”

While Rohatyn’s concern is the present, his book addresses current issues by focusing on America’s past. The core chapters of Bold Endeavors highlight 10 major federal projects that span a period of some 150 years, from the purchase of Louisiana to the establishment of the interstate highway system. The Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the land grant colleges, the Homestead Act, the Panama Canal, the Rural Electrification Administration, and the Reconstruction Finance Corp. – each massive undertaking demonstrates “how an activist government, led by leaders with vision and perseverance, made far-seeing investments that helped to shape America.” For Rohatyn, these “bold endeavors” serve as models for present and future action, pointing the way forward to more promising possibilities.

Whether discussing the 1812 struggles of Dewitt Clinton to sway both Congress and President James Madison in favor of the ambitious Erie Canal, or those of Justin Morrill to push through an 1862 bill establishing a network of government-funded universities, Rohatyn takes pains to detail the political maneuverings, financial creativity, and sheer determination that each effort required. Most were considered far too expensive, with funding that was too uncertain. Others met with complaints of overreach or became embroiled in corrupt practices, lining the pockets of greedy railway barons and land speculators. Yet all, Rohatyn argues, paid back multiple dividends and enabled the greater growth of the nation. The rural electrification program provided 5 million farmers a standard of living equal to that of urban dwellers; the railway and highway systems expanded transportation of goods and people and the development of distant territory. The G.I. Bill not only encouraged veteran education but also opened up housing and business opportunities. Reading history, Rohatyn writes, “begins a dialogue between the past and present.” He offers these case studies as a way “to reaffirm the activist tradition of public investment.’’

That tradition must be revived now, writes the man who became a legend when he led the financial rescue of New York City in the 1970s. The United States needs a National Infrastructure Bank that would independently evaluate and prioritize projects, blocking such wasteful schemes as “bridges to nowhere,” Rohatyn argues. This institution would also be responsible for identifying and arranging appropriate financing. The idea is not a new one; in 2007, Senators Chris Dodd, a Democrat, and Chuck Hagel, a Republican, both members of the CSIS infrastructure commission, introduced a bill proposing such a plan. And Obama’s proposed 2010 budget includes $5 billion for the creation of an infrastructure bank. Clearly written with the new administration in mind, the book takes on “ideological naysayers” who battle against “big government.” The business of the country may be business, Rohatyn states, invoking Calvin Coolidge. But market capitalism can’t thrive without strong government guidance and political leaders prepared to invest in the nation’s future.

Readers will need to plow past the dry opening sections of this book and may tire of the paeans to visionary leadership that close each chapter. But Bold Endeavors compensates with detailed accounts of America’s grand engineering projects that today are taken for granted. And particularly when examining the more recent past, Rohatyn spins a good tale. Consider, for example, the cross-country journey undertaken by the U.S. Army in 1919 to demonstrate the military potential of motor vehicles: The 62-day trek involved 72 cars, trucks, and motorcycles, 260 enlisted men, 35 officers, and some 3.5 million observers; and it crept along at an average pace of 5 miles per hour. The participation of a young lieutenant through potholes, mud roads, accidents, and breakdowns “started me thinking about good, two-lane highways,” Dwight D. Eisenhower would later recount. It inspired in him a life-long determination to sponsor the monumental engineering feat that ultimately produced America’s interstate highway system.

Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.




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