Whether you consider California to be paradise, dystopia or both, the state is certain to be the beneficiary of the largest share of federal funding from the $1.2-trillion infrastructure act, about $45 billion. On a per-person basis, that’s still a modest $1,200, so the funds won’t magically transform California into a public works paradise. 

What is likely to improve, if not transform, the quality of Californian and American life is a variety of public works of all kinds, each one serving a mostly local need and directed by dedicated government professionals to a successful completion on the public’s behalf.

The Orange County (OC) Streetcar project, like many other public works, has ended up being much more costly (current price: $509.5 million) than when it was first planned and designed. Although OC Streetcar isn’t the recipient of infrastructure act funding, federal and state grants will pay for more than half the costs ($305 million). In return, Santa Ana will get a 10-stop system with a 10- to 15-minute wait time, more foot traffic, fewer cars downtown and a boost to the local economy in a place where the poverty level is worse than the national average.

America is deeply divided, even when it comes to transportation choices. If you like driving down a road, you might enjoy more lanes and a smooth asphalt surface. If you prefer air travel, you may be sensitive to airport architecture and access, and if you like to travel by train—including hopping up on a streetcar—rail has its intangible pleasures. Rail advocates should be mildly pleased at new funds that will nurture rail, Amtrak and transit systems. In the current political and health slumps, it’s easy to forget the satisfaction and occasional joy that a single regional public project can inject into daily life. Public works can’t salve the pandemic’s wounds, but they are an act of faith in public life and in successful government—and a sign of optimistic public spirit in a time of crisis.