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A New Deal for Neighborhoods

David Gepner, an auto broker and real estate developer in the Minneapolis suburb of Richfield, welcomes Barack Obama’s plan to stimulate the economy by spending hundreds of billions of federal dollars on public works. Gepner’s business is suffering, so he’s anxious for more Americans to regain jobs and resume buying cars and homes.

But the 65-year-old Gepner is especially enthusiastic about the prospect of stimulus money going to transportation and energy projects. An inveterate cyclist who leads tours for Twin Cities bike clubs, Gepner views the potential federal expenditure as a prime opportunity to improve life in his town, especially for its older residents. Richfield is a modest 1950s suburb with few sidewalks, bus lines, designated bike lanes or shops accessible on foot, meaning that most activities require the use of a car. “At some point all of us are going to be less able to drive, and we don’t want to just sit around, waiting for our children to take us places,” Gepner says.

He hopes the stimulus plan’s public works extend beyond roads and bridges to include projects that make communities more livable—easier to navigate and enjoy. He points to studies in Richfield and similar places showing that residents want more chances to walk, bike, use public transit and live close to shopping. “It’s also about a sense of community. You get to know your neighbors when you’re out walking or biking. You don’t feel so isolated in your home,” he says.

The problem has always been that communities like Richfield simply lack the funds to pay for such improvements. “[Obama’s] plan could be an important investment in our future,” Gepner says.

Bringing Back the WPA

The nation’s infrastructure is decaying—a fact underscored by the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 and the failure of levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Obama has promised “the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s.” But the current economic climate more closely resembles the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt launched massive public works projects to help jump-start the economy and put Americans back to work. Thousands of highways, bridges, airports, public buildings, military facilities, sewage plants, sports fields, parks, sidewalks, art projects and much more were built or refurbished by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and related federal agencies.

Those were forward-looking projects for their time, helping to expand the federal highway system, commercial air travel and new recreational opportunities. The great majority of the projects—from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Chicago’s subway to parks and rural electrification all across the country—still serve the public today.

As governors, mayors and organizations submit their wish lists of projects that Obama’s promise could embrace, many Americans want to apply the WPA’s spirit of innovation to 21st-century social and environmental problems. The nation’s highway system goes halfway to meeting transportation needs, the thinking goes. It may be time to shift focus to ways of getting around that don’t rely on cars and oil. Many homes are expensive to heat and cool and waste energy, but we know how to make them more fuel-efficent. Safe and affordable housing combined with easy access to walking, biking and public transit makes communities easier places for older people to live in. And if communities are easier for older people to live in, they’re easier for everyone.

“The WPA did whatever a community wanted,” says Nick Taylor, author of American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA. “We could easily do the same thing today to fulfill Obama’s plans for 2.5 million jobs.”

Public Transit Alternatives

What Harry Sanders, 62, wants for the Maryland suburbs of Washington, where he lives, is a light rail line. The retired computer analyst tirelessly advocates for the so-called Purple Line, an addition to the area’s Metrorail system, in part out of concern for future generations but also because “in 10 or so years, people my age will not feel comfortable driving in D.C. traffic, especially our Beltway,” he says.

While the precise route remains controversial, the 16-mile Purple Line would link various communities, along the way connecting to Metrorail stations, the University of Maryland, a wide range of shopping choices and Amtrak, which would open up unlimited options for non-auto travel. The $1.2 billion project is ready to go—it’s been studied for 20 years. “All it needs is money,” Sanders says.

That’s just the sort of project outlined by Transportation for America, a coalition of environmental, community and social justice groups, in a program to revitalize both the economy and communities. Alternatives to driving are not social experiments but rather proven strategies for economic and social renewal, says Shelley Poticha, co-chair of Transportation for America and president of Reconnecting America. The importance of such projects “is not always understood in Washington,” she says. “Out in the rest of the country, however, people know the value.”

But Washington is precisely where Obama and Congress are in a hurry to pass a stimulus package that injects money into the economy as quickly as possible. The rush worries some experts in the sustainable transportation and energy fields. “Are we going to build the same kind of new road projects we’ve always done because they are already in the pipeline even if they exacerbate the problems we have, or are we going to do something for the future?” asks Barbara McCann, coordinator of the National Complete Streets Coalition, an AARP ally in efforts to increase transportation options.

There’s a fighting chance, says William W. Millar, president of the American Public Transit Association. The group has identified 736 train and bus projects in 216 cities that are ready to begin within 90 days of federal funding. “That’s $12.2 billion in investment right off the bat, which will create 340,000 jobs,” Millar says.

Green Jobs

Sheila Holman, 71, is an artist and retired teacher in Hillsboro, Ore., a suburb of Portland. She lives on a fixed income and was delighted to reside in a sunny, inexpensive apartment—until she got last winter’s first heating bill, which almost equaled the monthly rent.

“I had to give up going to the symphony and filling up my car with gas last year,” she says. “What will it be this year—cut back on medications or food?”

Although relatively new, her apartment building needs to be overhauled, Holman says. Insufficient insulation and the location of heat registers near windows and patio doors drive up her heating costs.

The good news for Holman is that Obama’s ambition to identify environmentally sound public works reaches beyond mass transportation to embrace so-called green jobs that reduce energy use and global-warming emissions. One proposal floated to Obama’s transition team includes a $300 million Service and Conservation Corps to mobilize 250,000 young and older Americans to work on renewable-energy projects and retrofit homes in low-income neighborhoods for energy conservation.

The corps is the brainchild of the Apollo Alliance, a network of business, labor and community leaders inspired by the can-do spirit behind sending an American to the moon. Apollo put together a $50 billion proposal to create 650,000 jobs in renewable energy, clean-energy research and green business as well as public transportation.

The nation’s budget woes, however, prompt some people to question the wis­dom of such enormous expenditures, especially when they would be financed by diving deeper into debt. Economic conservatives question whether public works projects actually stimulate the economy, although proponents of such investments say that every dollar invested in public transportation returns six dollars in economic development.

It remains to be seen how many proposals to reshape communities and clean up the environment will make their way into the final stimulus plan. But consider this: Before the last presidential debate of the 2008 campaign, Transportation for America petitioned the candidates to lay out their plans for investing in transportation and green innovation. In response, Obama wrote that “now is the time to ... strengthen our core infrastructure.” He vowed to give 2 million more Americans jobs rebuilding roads, bridges and transit systems, and fund existing federal transportation investments. He also promised to create 5 million new green jobs.

“Everyone benefits if we can leave our cars, walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives,” he wrote.

If that’s an indication of things to come, David Gepner, Harry Sanders and Sheila Holman have a lot to look forward to.

(Photos by Chris Mueller/Redux)

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book, is a fellow at the news and ideas website On the Commons.

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