Use these hard times to stimulate a regional infrastructure renaissance

Original Article

The whole country, including Seattle, is in the same sort of crisis that at first afflicted metropolitan Seattle after the “Boeing Bust” of 1969-1973. Developments in that trying time, oddly enough, ultimately produced a boom period characterized by unusual entrepreneurship, creativity and economic diversification.

It promoted Seattle to the leadership of metropolitan regions. It can happen again. Among the factors that enabled economic renaissance in the early 1970s were a highly educated and motivated work force, the availability of local public-project moneys that – fortuitously – had been approved in previous years, and federal matching money from programs that also had been targeted to just such situations.

The Forward Thrust bond issues that won the voters’ nod in 1968 – bond issues just retired this fall, four decades later – provided money for new parks, fire stations, community centers, our first Major League Baseball stadium, libraries, arts facilities, transportation and sewers that helped clean up local lakes and Puget Sound. More than a quarter-billion dollars was involved.

According to Jim Ellis, the “father of Forward Thrust,” the parks issue alone, at $118 million, was the largest of its kind in the country at that time. Federal matching funds made it possible to fulfill the financial-accountability promises made to the voters, even though inflation was to soar in the aftermath of the oil crisis of 1973.

Use of historic preservation to renovate, rather than replace, certain old structures – such as the Wallingford Fire Station, which is now a library, and the waterfront piers, which were incorporated into the new park and aquarium – also helped hold down the cost of “new” facilities. All in all, it was the biggest jolt of infrastructure improvements since the post-Klondike Gold Rush boom of the early 20th century.

Something similar is now open to Seattle, Washington state and, for that matter, the nation. Given the options for stimulating the present recessionary economy, infrastructure needs should be given top billing.

First, we have held off too long on many of these needs.

Second, If political leaders and appointed officials can act with dispatch, there are more legitimate ways to increase employment using public funds. The voters certainly have shown their willingness to participate. Nov. 4, despite the new recession, some 23 state and local ballot measures nationally were approved just for transportation purposes, amounting to $75 billion. The biggest commitment of all was $18 billion for Sound Transit in the Central Puget Sound region.

In Seattle, add the parks-repairs initiative and funds directed to rehabilitate the Pike Place Market. (Ironically, it was anti-recessionary money that helped restore the Market 40 years ago. Now it is due for further work.) The question is, how fast can these projects start spending money – responsibly – while inflation is low and unemployment is rising?

What can state and local leaders and federal officials do to fast-track elements of these programs, such as the Eastside rail-and-trail project, where, for example, rail replacement and general trail development literally could begin early in 2009?

What can be done at the state level to expedite the otherwise laborious environmental-impact-statement process? Local officials should be energetic in getting the parks development and Pike Place Market repairs started now, not a year or two from now when the economic impacts will not so much stimulate the economy as help to overheat it.

Timing is the test of leadership. Obviously, the federal government is going to use its power to promote growth. Right or wrong, some of it will go to a new stimulus plan. But rather than put money into the hands of people who already are employed and are not especially pressed right now, the new stimulus is meant to help a faltering economy by creating jobs.

The dangers are that the plan will be slow to get implemented – the feds are not notably fast – and will lead to potentially wasteful long-term commitments, rather than getting fast, needed, one-time action where it is quite legitimate and needed. It was done in the early 1970s. It will be the test of our current local, state and federal officials whether they can do it now.

Handled right, there will be strong bipartisan support and the Obama administration can begin, in this area at least, with true unity behind it.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.