My grandfather lived to be 99. He played ragtime on the piano every night and grew a magical raspberry patch in summer. He spent his days working on the highways in Wisconsin for 40 years, starting in the Depressed 1930s as a draftsman. Later came the glory days of the national building boom during the Eisenhower era. My grandfather took pictures of the projects for slide shows, oh, so neatly organized. Some cityfolk in the family thought his devotion to making roads quaint. As my grandmother Eleanor said of her husband Stratton at lunch out in the yard one day: "Strat believes in highways."
Well, now I'm a believer. Now I understand that faith, even a mighty passion for infrastructure. Right on, Grandpa. It's so very American, to build a fabulous infrastructure in a century and a half. The trains and tracks that took President-elect Abraham Lincoln to Washington in 1861; later the grand dams and bridges built by the Works Progress Administration such as the fabled Golden Gate; the telephone lines strung up to connect us each and every one. They declare we were a nation of can-do believers. Infrastructure's path was often cleared by government, as in highways. [See a slide show of the 10 Best Cities for Public Transportation.]
It was a simple given that hardly needed to be said. Infrastructure was part of our national identity: the strong silent type, like my grandfather. He was likely a Republican, but he never did say. When he was named the state's chief highway engineer, he never talked about that, either.
Now we are living in a strange time, call it the New Steal, where we cannot even agree on infrastructure anymore. Meanwhile, it crumbles into dust like a modern Ozymandias.
So a small bipartisan group of senators, led by Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, has just proposed creating an infrastructure bank to help public transportation, water and energy projects get started with seed money. Isn't that the most sensible thing you've heard in a long time? Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from Texas and Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, are also on the team.
In the New Steal, much of what middle-class Americans took for granted cannot be assumed anymore. Fabulous infrastucture is one thing we've got to hold onto as a precious inheritance, continuing to invest. It represents a past vote of confidence in our future. [See a slide show of 10 cities adopting smart grid technology.]
That's why what three Republican governors did made me wonder: what is wrong with you people? In Wisconsin, Florida and New Jersey, three governors recently refused point blank to build major infrastructure improvements: for a high-speed train link between Madison and Milwaukee, a similar train between Orlando and Tampa, and a Hudson River tunnel project. President Obama was understandably cross because billions of dollars in federal funds were committed to spending on the high-speed trains, greener ways to get places than highways.
That's un-American in my book. The three governors--Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Scott of Florida and Chris Christie of New Jersey--did not only steal from the present. In truth, they stole much more from the future. They are not keeping the faith with the men who built America, like my grandfather.