Today is Earth Day: Where Are the Master Builders?
America has entered the fifth decade of the Environmental Era. Our air and water are cleaner, and land use less rapacious. Sunday is Earth Day, the statement that the quality of life is as significant as the quantity of life. The first Earth Day, April 22, 1090, symbolically marked the shift from infrastructure to the environment, the shift from a developmental ethic to an administrative, regulatory environment.
America was built by the master builders, the visionaries who built our roads, highways, tunnels, canals, airports, dams, reservoirs, power plants, transmission lines, refineries, and pipelines that make modern civilization possible. They bridged and dammed the rivers, tunneled the mountains, and spanned the deserts, plains, and mountains of America. They brought energy, water, and employment to the American people.
As we celebrate the environment, we need to understand that our standard of living is equally dependent upon the infrastructure which supports it. We take our needs for granted when we wake up in the morning: hot and cold running water, electricity, and gas in the car, but all are at risk today.
The master builder is no longer celebrated. Instead, we honor those who successfully oppose projects. We’re closing more power plants than building, shutting off our national oil preserves rather than developing them, and limiting oil exploration and development. The east coast, west coast, and all of Florida are closed to offshore exploration, as are ANWR and much of the federal lands.
Building infrastructure is not sexy. Civil, geotechnical, and structural engineering are not the most glamorous of the engineering professions. Nor do the economic rewards match those of computer and electrical, petroleum, or biomedical engineers. Infrastructure improvements get short shift in tight budget times until a tragedy results.
A few of the major master builders, who built the infrastructure that support our standard of living, are James J. Hill, William Mulholland, Robert Moses, Henry J. Kaiser, and Pat Brown.
James J. Hill had the vision of linking the Pacific Northwest with the Midwest with the privately financed Great Northern Railroad. His legacy is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, one of America’s four great railroads.
William Mulholland brought water to the tiny pueblo of Los Angeles, turning it into one of the world’s great cities. The city had a population of 9,000 when he arrived in 1877. Mulholland once said of the Owens Valley water, if the tiny Pueblo of Los Angeles didn’t get it, it wouldn’t need it. The 233 mile Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed in 1913. He said “There it is; Take it.” The Southern California megalopolis is still searching for water for 20 million residents.
Robert Moses, from 1924 to 1968, developed the infrastructure of New York and brought New York into the automobile age, giving to us Jones Beach, Orchard Beach, the Triborough, Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone, Henry Hudson, and Verrazano Narrows Bridges, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the Brooklyn-Queen, Staten Island, and Cross Bronx Expressways, the New York State and Long island Expressways, the West Side Highway, Co-Op City and other public housing, Shea Stadium, Flushing Meadows, Riverside Park, Lincoln Center, Shea Stadium, the United Nations Building, the Niagara and St. Lawrence Power Projects, and two world fairs, and rebuilt central Park. He built 658 playgrounds in The City.
Moses also gave rise to Jane Jacobs, the Freeway Revolt, citizen activists, and community involvement, the antithesis of the Master Builder. Today, a city which takes 8 years to figure out what to do with Ground Zero has problems.
Moses’ view was “Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticize.”
Henry J. Kaiser help build Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, Bonneville Dam, and Shasta Dam, as well as the Hawaiian Village Resort in Honolulu. He developed Panorama City in California and Hawaii Kai in Hawaii. He operated seven shipyards in World War II that built 1,490 ships for the war effort. He created aluminum, cement, chemical, gypsum, and steel companies, and for awhile owned Kaiser Jeep. His greatest legacy to America is the pioneering Kaiser-Permanente HMO.
Las Vegas would not exist without Hoover dam. Portland and Seattle would be shadows of their present self without the dams on the Columbia and its tributaries.
The last great master builder of the 20th Century was Governor Edmund G “Pat” Brown of California. From 1959 to 1967 he led California by building the state’s freeway system, obtaining voter approval of the California Water Project, which sent northern California water to the thirsty southern California, and with the advice of Clark Kerr, President of the University of California, securing legislative approval of the California Master Plan of Higher Education. Governor Brown and President Clark Kerr created 3 new campuses of the University of California in Irvine, San Diego, and Santa Cruz. They built the University of California into the world’s greatest university system with the Berkeley campus ranked the world’s greatest university in 1964.
That was then; this is now. The California Legislature now appropriates more for the prison system than higher education, and the campuses are suffering from deferred maintenance.
Governor Brown’s son, Jerry Brown during his first governorship 8 years later, adopted “Less is more” as his mantra. Less is not always more, as shown by the California electrical shortages a decade ago, magnified by a statutory scheme that defied common sense and basic economics, and gamed by Enron. California illustrates the risks of a large population growth unaccompanied by capacity increases.
Our infrastructure, the dams, bridges, tunnels, and roads suffer from deferred maintenance. Transportation for America reported last year that 69,223 bridges, over 11% of the nation’s total, were classified as “structurally deficient.” New York is currently wrestling with the safety of the Tappen Zee Dam.
We need an infrastructure which meets our needs, has a sufficient reserve capacity, and does not suffer from deferred maintenance. The San Onofre nuclear power plant in
Southern California is shut down for an indefinite period for safety reasons. The fear is that California will lack sufficient capacity during the hot days of summer, bringing back the blackouts of a decade ago. California lacks the normal 15% reserve capacity.
The Army Corps of Engineers last century built the infrastructure of America, especially with water resources. Now, the Corps devotes a substantial amount of its resources to regulation.
Our master builders built the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, Bonneville Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, and Rockefeller Center during the Depression. None might be constructed today.
The master builders conquered the wilderness, mountains, plains, rivers, and deserts of America. They never encountered environmental impact statements, the Endangered Species Act, NIMBY’s, the EPA, or the California Coastal Commission.