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Eisenhower showed us how to get the job done

Fri, Aug 10th, 2007
Posted in Commentary

As a young boy I remember exploring the tall sand hills about a mile from where I grew up in Austin. At the time I was too little to know what they were to be used for.

A few weeks ago, I drove over that same hilly ground I first visited in the late 1950s; today it is a highway exit off of I-90 leading to shopping malls on the northwest side of town.

I-90 was the result of the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956. The brainchild of President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, the initiative was fully implemented under President Dwight Eisenhower. The act appropriated $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways over a 10 year period. The federal government picked up 90 percent of the costs, with individual states picking up the balance. By the time it was completed in the 1980s, the project exceeded $25 billion several times over. The interstate highway system is the largest public works project in U.S. history.

Eisenhower sold Congress the idea of the interstate highway system based on the country's need for good roads to move military equipment in a time of war; thus the focus on Defense in the title of the act.

The interstate system changed the nation, leading to greater mobility, faster cars and economic change. It even, unintentionally, led to the exit of people from our central cities to the suburbs.

Eisenhower's post-World War II vision was generated in part from his participation in a military convoy travelling across the United States from Washington D.C. to San Francisco in 1919. The trip took nearly two months and brought attention to the plight of our nation's roads.

Eisenhower never forgot that trip. And what he saw in Europe during World War II influenced his thinking even further.

"The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land," Eisenhower said.

Eisenhower envisioned a series of interconnecting "ribbons" of highway running north and south and east and west connecting the whole of America. I-35 was part of that system, as was the I-35W bridge, which was built in 1967, that collapsed last week.

The bridge collapse was a tragic wake up call that reminded all of us what we have intuitively known for sometime: that our infrastructure is old and crumbling.

Just drive from Fountain to Chatfield on Hwy 52 and you know the state of much of our highway system - barely passable and questionably safe.

Ride a subway in New York or Boston and see the cars snake through a subterranean system that is 100 years old. What mass transit that exists in this country, which is primarily east of the Mississippi, is old and archaic.

Old water pipes, sewage pipes, gas pipes, steam pipes, electric cables and telephone lines lie beneath our city streets. Much of it is old and needs replacing like the steam pipe that blew up in New York City last month, killing one person and leaving a bomb-size crater in the middle of the street.

Failed bridges in Minnesota; failed levees in New Orleans. As Newt Gingrich said the other day at the National Press Club, "None of us thought we grew up in an America where levees fail and bridges fall."

We have been running government on the cheap for so long now that we call a tax a fee so that we don't disturb our friends at the Taxpayer's League, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, special interest groups who are against taxes at any cost, even though it was taxes, used judiciously and with purpose, that helped build this country.

It took those horrific pictures of the I-35W bridge laying like a sunken aircraft carrier across the Mississippi for us to wake up to the fact that we have been negligent for too long.

• A recent study found that 83 percent of the nation's transportation infrastructure was not capable of meeting the country's needs over the next 10 years. We need a federal Marshall Plan to rebuild our dying infrastructure, update our highway systems, make new commitments to mass transit and ready our country for the future.

• In Minnesota we need to have a Commissioner of Transportation whose day job is not Lieutenant Governor. As the former head of the House Transportation Finance Committee, Carol Molnau, has known for a long time what this state has needed to spend to keep our transportation system up to date. Politically, we need someone devoted solely to those challenges.

• And, now more than ever, we need capable leadership to set the country and state on the right course. So, far, neither George Bush nor Tim Pawlenty have demonstrated the leadership necessary to move us in the right direction. They can, however, take a lesson from Eisenhower - a Republican who asked the American people to pony up and pay the price; he showed us how to get the job done.

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