Opinion

A Lesson from the Great Depression

Editorial

Eric Lesser might be on to something.

In fact, we’re pretty sure he is.

During a recent installment of BusinessTalk, the podcast produced by BusinessWest in conjunction with Living Local, Lesser — the state senator from Longmeadow and staunch advocate for high-speed rail linking Western and Eastern Mass. — was asked about that project, which has lost some of its visibility, if not its traction, in the midst of the pandemic. In short, people seemingly have other things to worry about right now.

He was asked specifically if the project might still be needed given the way the pandemic has clearly shown that people can work remotely and, thus, may not have to physically get from Western Mass. to Eastern Mass. in order to work for a company in Boston or Cambridge.

He answered first by saying the rail line might be needed now more than ever because people will — eventually — need to see one another again, albeit perhaps not as often. High-speed rail would enable them to do so in a manner that is efficient, would help take cars off the road and thus reduce congestion, and might level the playing field between east and west in this state by helping to reduce one of the boundaries to high-paying jobs in emerging fields like IT and biosciences.

But he went further, arguing that building the rail line now would not only accomplish all that, but would help move this region and the entire state out of a pandemic-induced recession that will likely be with us for years.

“The economy desperately needs this,” he said. “At the height of the Great Depression, our country built 78,000 bridges, we built 800 airports … we need to be ambitious about where we’re going, and the economy is going to need the investment, the stimulus. East-west rail would inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy almost immediately from construction alone.”

He’s right, and this is the way state and federal officials need to be thinking moving forward as they go about finding ways to help individuals and businesses — and the nation as a whole — dig out of this hole created by the pandemic.

The comparisons to the Great Depression are appropriate — we are now in an economic downturn comparable to what happened 90 years ago in many ways: everything from the long lines at the unemployment office to the long lines at what were then soup kitchens and are now food pantries.

While World War II eventually ended the Great Depression, massive construction projects launched during the mid-’30s created millions of jobs that enabled families to survive those years. But those projects did much more than that. Indeed, they addressed needed infrastructure issues, vastly improved the nation’s transportation system, and paved the way for development of many western and Sun Belt states.

Projects ranging from the Hoover Dam to the Triborough Bridge in New York to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco were game changers in many different ways — especially the way they provided jobs at a time when people desperately needed them.

State and national leaders should be thinking about projects like east-west rail in the same light. Such initiatives can not only solve recognized problems, they can help lessen the already-crippling damage from this pandemic. And there are many other projects that can be undertaken, right here in this region, from repairing roads and bridges to renovating parks and bike trails.

There is a tendency among some to look at the damage from the pandemic as temporary, something that will be fixed once the virus has run its course. The accumulating evidence would seem to indicate otherwise — that it will take years to repair damage done to individual communities and a wide range of business sectors. The key to repairing this damage is jobs, not stimulus checks or even PPP money.

Lesser’s right. The high-speed rail project is more important now than it was before, and there are many projects that fit that description. The state and the nation can learn from what happened 90 years ago and make needed, prudent investments, even at a time of extreme challenge, to help all of us through this crisis.

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