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Which New Deal Projects Have Ended Up Costing a Bundle Down the Road?

Triborough Bridge; via U.S. National Archives

Question: I recently watched your report on the Newshour about New Deal infrastructure projects in St. Louis. You mentioned the New Deal brought us the Triborough Bridge in New York, but you didn’t mention that it is currently one of the largest debt holders in America, with high tolls and little money for improvements — but money for renaming. What other WPA projects have accumulated tremendous operating budgets and debts?

Paul Solman: I don’t know, Sam. You can probably find out, via the Internet, as easily as I can. But unless I’m mistaken (as I certainly am sometimes), yours is a rhetorical question, the implication of which is that the New Deal may have brought us a bridge to somewhere in this case, but a bridge that’s poorly run.

So let me ask you a question in return: Would we be better off WITHOUT the Triborough Bridge? Perhaps. Driving into Manhattan from Boston, I myself use the Willets Avenue bridge at 135th St. instead and save the substantial toll. Heading out to LaGuardia or JFK, I sometimes use the 59th St. or Williamsburg bridges (both free) or the Midtown Tunnel. Moreover, I confess, there’s a case to be made against any car-friendly infrastructure projects. One of humankind’s great sins may turn out to be our subsidizing of the automobile.

But allow me this: The Triborough Bridge is emphatically a bridge to more than one somewhere. TRIborough, right? And New York is the only major city in the Northeast not to have lost population in the past 40 years, I believe. Its boroughs are “somewheres” indeed.

So here we have a public project that’s still providing great utility to millions of people — allowing them to travel when, where, and how they want — 70+ years after it was begun. AND it put people to work at a time when they had none, presumably prodding the economy, if ever so slightly – or at least preventing it from sinking further. That seems enough to justify a public investment, no? Does to me.

Editor’s note: Don’t miss a slide show of other famous New Deal infrastructure projects around the country.

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