Making the case for a new Works Project Administration.

During the Depression, President Roosevelt poured $11.4 billion (about $175 billion in 2008 dollars, by our estimate) into the Works Progress Administration. The agency spent nearly $4 billion on highway and road projects and more than $2 billion on public buildings and utilities. All told, the WPA put 8.5 million people to work between 1935 and 1943. Together those people built 651,087 miles of roadway, built or improved 124,031 bridges, erected 125,110 public buildings and laid 853 airport runways. Not bad at a time when the unemployment approached 25 percent.

Beyond providing jobs — analysts say every $1 billion spent on transportation projects creates 35,000 jobs — a modern-day WPA would produce lasting benefits. “China is spending 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, and we’re spending something like one or two percent,” says Allen D. Biehler, Pennsylvania’s transportation secretary. “A sustained investment would not only create jobs that have a strong multiplier effect on the larger economy, but would prevent us from falling behind other nations.”