By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 14, 2008

Plans for a massive stimulus package are drawing comparisons both to the New Deal of the 1930s and to the interstate highway program begun in the late 1950s. The package's price tag -- possibly more than $500 billion -- suggests that it could be at least as broad. But matching them in terms of lasting impact will be a tall order.

At the heart of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal was the Works Progress Administration, which was put in place two years into the president's first term, in the spring of 1935, after several other spending programs had been up and running, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Civil Works Administration. The WPA was, unapologetically, a jobs program, which would put people to work at what was hoped to be worthwhile endeavors, such as building bridges, writing guides to the states and painting murals.

The initial appropriation was for about $5 billion, and from 1936 to 1939, expenditures totaled $7 billion -- $100 billion in today's dollars. By 1940, the WPA -- typically with matching money from states -- had erected more than 4,000 schools and made repairs to more than 30,000 others; built 130 hospitals and improved an additional 1,670; laid 9,000 miles of storm drains and sewer lines; planted 24 million trees; paved or repaired 300,000 miles of road; built 30,000 bridges and 150 airfields; and built or repaired 2,500 sports stadiums.

WPA projects included the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state, New York's Triborough Bridge, the stone bridges along the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut and Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. At its peak, the WPA provided jobs for more than a quarter of the nation's unemployed. By the time it was discontinued in 1943, about 8 million Americans had at some point collected a WPA paycheck.

What came to be known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways was inspired partly by Eisenhower's admiration for the German autobahn system. The original plans envisioned the construction of 41,000 miles of highways, estimated at the time to cost $41 billion (funded largely by gas taxes and tolls) and to be completed by 1975.

By the mid-1990s, the system was still being built and had grown to about 42,700 miles, at an estimated cost of $58 billion in 1957 dollars -- $425 billion in today's dollars, or slightly less than some of the cost estimates now being bandied about for the stimulus package of 2009.

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