In the dreadful days of the Depression, the administration of Franklin Roosevelt tried something new: a massive public-works program designed to put Americans back to work while building the infrastructure the nation desperately needed. The Works Progress Administration was the largest single element of the New Deal — and it’s an idea whose time has come again.

Today, we don’t face the same conditions as the nation confronted in 1935, when the WPA began. Unemployment is not nearly so high, and it’s a recession we’re in — or will soon be in — not a Great Depression.

But we do face a tremendous need for new and better infrastructure of all sorts, and with the ongoing slump in housing, there are many thousands of skilled tradespeople who need work. We need a major new national effort, and right now.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has said we will have to spend as much as $1.6 trillion to restore or replace the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

By contrast, the WPA spent $11 billion over its eight-year lifespan. But what a return for that $11 billion. The WPA built more than 650,000 miles of highways, roads and streets. It built or repaired 124,000 bridges, 125,000 public buildings, more than 8,100 parks and nearly 900 airports of all sizes. By the time the program was folded, in the middle of World War II, more than 8 million Americans had drawn a WPA paycheck.

Something similar could be in our near future. Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., have introduced the National Infrastructure Bank Act, which would create an independent national bank whose task would be to “identify, evaluate and help finance infrastructure projects of regional and national significance,” according to Dodd.

The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs is scheduled to hold a hearing Tuesday to discuss the legislation. Witnesses will address the condition of the nation’s highways, roads, bridges, ports, transit systems, dams, levees, publicly owned housing and water-treatment facilities. The needs in every area are great, and only something on a massive scale — along the lines of the WPA — can be expected to succeed.

That’s not an easy sell, any more than it was easy for Roosevelt to get the WPA and other elements of the New Deal past skeptics in Congress and elsewhere. The antipathy toward government and its works, especially among conservatives, is so great that any such effort becomes a titanic struggle.

But the WPA isn’t the only example of a successful government initiative to prime the economic pump. In 1862, the Homestead Act opened the West and led to the development of the transcontinental railways. That helped to make this nation what it is today, a continent-spanning industrial power.

Similarly, the GI Bill fueled the extraordinary economic expansion that followed World War II. In each case, government acted to create the conditions that led to enormous growth in national wealth.

In the process, the government became a partner and servant of the people, rather than a master. It was seen as helping, rather than hindering, the efforts of individuals to succeed and prosper. We’ve lost that connection, by and large, and that costs us dearly.

There are other ways to prime the pump, of course. The Economic Stimulus Act pushed by President Bush and adopted by Congress will soon be putting checks – for $600, in most cases — in Americans’ mailboxes. No doubt that money will be welcome in most households. But ironically, if Americans do what’s best for them as individuals — save the cash or pay down debt — the stimulus effect on the national economy will be negligible.

A potentially more promising mechanism is the temporary depreciation bonus that’s also part of the stimulus package. It would help businesses buy new equipment in 2008 by offering a bigger depreciation — a tax break — in the first year: 50 percent of the purchase price. That’s a good idea, too.

But nowhere is the need for government intervention more crucial than in the matter of our infrastructure.

And the need doesn’t rest entirely with the federal government. Dodd and Hagel are on the right track with their updated version of the WPA, but there should also be similar efforts at the state level.

Nowhere is the need greater than here in California. All of the problems in other states are found here as well, only magnified. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature should be working to build on the bond measures voters passed in 2006 for transportation, water, air quality, levees and other needs.

The need is urgent, at both the state and federal levels. And the programs we adopt must be placed on a fast track. The nation’s infrastructure is not some abstract philosophical subject. Our highways and ports are already congested, our dams and levees are unsafe, our bridges are falling down. And it’s more than our economic vitality that is at stake. American lives are at risk as well.

There are those who will say that we can’t afford these grand efforts at a time of budget deficits and other woes. Baloney. The American people and their leaders found the courage — and the money — to do great things in the depths of the Depression, when things were far more grim than the conditions we face today. They confronted their economic demons and pulled themselves out of despair. We don’t have to reinvent that wheel. We already have the blueprint.

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