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Public works, public art and infrastructure funding

What’s in a name? What can art accomplish? How about protecting a few trillion dollars of public money and the future of the planet?

Children in the Great Depression were given art classes that employed artists as teachers and as poster designers

Children in the Great Depression were given art

classes by the WPA that employed artists as

teachers and as poster designers.

Sometime in the 1980s Americans began to bandy about the word “infrastructure.” President Ronald Reagan, in office just two years and looking at aging roads and bridges and a high rate of unemployment, signed into law the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, which levied an additional five cents tax per gallon of gas for the purpose of repairing roads, bridges and public transit – collectively called infrastructure.

The word was a bit more technical sounding than “public works,” a term which had been sullied over decades because it was associated with political gamesmanship and graft, something that Duke University engineering professor Henry Petroski writes about in his book, “The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure” (Bloomsbury USA, 2016).

As I detail in a blog for my client,, the play between“infrastructure” and “public works” might psychologically influence how we regard public spending on those very large, very costly and commonly shared things.

Public works now has an almost antique sound to it. I think of the various programs coming out of the 1930s New Deal championed by President Franklin Roosevelt: the Works Progress Administration, later the Work Projects Administration (WPA), which employed 8.5 million people in building highways, dams, schools and other public buildings, and which employed artists and actors whose jobs were to lift the spirits of the populace. It was a necessary safety net that ended when full employment was achieved in World War II.

The graphic posters of WPA era, created by the WPA artists, have come into a certain nostalgic popularity and collectability. I have two (see photos) that remind me that at one time art, literature, history, and entertainment were tools for supporting the psychological structure of the country in troubled times. But it’s important to know that those programs too were controversial in their day. Still, Roosevelt prevailed as Reagan did a half-century later in convincing Congress and the American people that the shared commons is worth an investment.

Writers and actors too were employed in the WPA program, often recording oral histories.

Writers and actors too were employed in the

WPA program, often recording and relaying oral histories.

Perhaps the word infrastructure is too technical, too clinically removed from how smart transportation systems and their maintenance are intimately ours: we use it and we need to pay for it. The U.S. Congress, as well as legislators and executives in many of the state houses, have been exceptionally tight-fisted about spending on our roads, bridges, buses and trains, even as a society we are more mobile than ever before. Not maintaining a road is pennywise and pound-foolish: failing to spend a dollar today on asphalt cracks can mean spending $7 in five years – because those cracks inevitably grow. Now consider how state and federal governments have spent more than $2 trillion to build our infrastructure since the 1950s, and how all of it is subject to the natural deterioration that comes from time, weather and traffic.

The embodied energy in pavement is significant as well, so those wasted dollars also mean more carbon goes into the atmosphere when we foolishly defer maintenance. Rebuilding instead of just surgically repairing roads generates greater amounts of greenhouse gases.

If we were to call it “public works” again, would it feel closer to what we own and pay for? Can a name change help taxpayers to understand the vital importance of smart stewardship of our multi-trillion-dollar investments?

When White House changes hands in January 2017, with perhaps a differently ordered Congress, might there be a different approach to public works? Remember, Reagan and Roosevelt came from different parties; this should be a bipartisan issue.

A lot of it depends on the strength of the public will, well informed on why smoother roads and faster trains are ultimately more cost-efficient and greener when maintained on a timely basis. The bipartisan successes of Roosevelt and Reagan were in part due to both presidents' command of language, the art that forms much of the basis of politics. It's not much of a stretch to think that the social media memes of today – themselves often artful and persuasive – play a role similar to that of yesterday's WPA posters.

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Russ Klettke

Business Writer

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