The money now is flowing from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for a variety of construction projects, ranging from simple paving jobs to sophisticated energy-efficiency revamps of federal buildings. But something is missing—public support. The economic-stimulus funding bill that Congress passed in February allocated $787 billion for the overall economic mission, but only about $130 billion for construction.


Yet the most visible aspects of the stimulus are the construction projects, and the ones under way do little to lift people’s spirits, give them hope about the future or cause them to open their wallets and start spending again.

One of Congress’ main objectives was to move federal money quickly into the economy to save jobs or even create new ones. Yes, people appreciate having their rutty roads paved or crumbling curbs fixed, and they are even happier if they happen to snag one of the construction jobs. But many wonder what the nation really is getting for $787 billion. Not a lot, since much of the money is being frittered away on odds and ends, including operational expenses.

What really gets the American public interested are colossal construction projects that show the ingenuity and will of the American people and the skill of the construction industry. One classic example is the construction of Hoover Dam. Work started in 1931 during the Great Depression, and people flocked to Nevada in hopes of getting work. The winning bid was $48,890,955 by Six Companies Inc.—a joint venture of six now-famous construction firms. The bid was very close to the government’s estimate, much like the tight bidding in today’s economy.

Hoover Dam’s engineering was superb, construction work heroic and the project opened up the West with power and water. The dedication was held on Sept. 30, 1935, only four years after work started. The dam was a real stimulus, with a national benefit.

A more recent monumental U.S. project was the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, the largest water-resource project ever built in the U.S. The 234-mile artificial waterway was completed in 1984 and connects the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers. One doesn’t hear much about the Tenn-Tom these days because it has been firmly folded into the fabric of the U.S. economy, but it was attacked during construction as federal “pork” because of its $2-billion cost. That figure looks like a bargain today. The project involved 10 locks and dams, eight railroad bridges, 14 highway bridges and excavation of 310 million cu yd of earth—about the same amount as the Panama Canal and Suez Canal combined.

Like the cost of the Hoover Dam, Tenn-Tom’s cost has faded from memory, but the benefits of both projects persist. The cost of today’s stimulus also may eventually be forgotten, but so will the value of its not-so-memorable projects and the politicians who commissioned them.