President Barack Obama lamented recently that Americans have “lost our ambition, our imagination, and — and — our willingness to do the things that built the Golden Gate Bridge.”
There are at least two facts that must be pointed out here. First, the Golden Gate Bridge was built by private enterprise, not government. If anything, government was a major obstacle to the bridge, thanks to opposition from the Department of Defense and the mistaken opinion of a San Francisco city engineer that the ground under the Bay would never support such a structure.
It’s also worth noting that Bank of America founder and President A.P. Giannini — a member of the much-maligned 1 percent — stepped forward at a critical moment after the 1929 stock market crash to provide much-needed private financing to complete the project. The bridge was finished in 1937, 16 years after architect Joseph Strauss first began the project. He completed the project $1.7 million under its total budget of $35 million.
Second, Obama is almost certainly correct in doubting that grand projects such as the Golden Gate Bridge could be done today, but not for the reasons he would want to acknowledge. For proof, we need look no further than the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that TransCanada Corp. first proposed in 2008. The company wants to spend $7 billion in private capital to build the pipeline. It would transport crude oil produced in Canada’s Alberta tar sands region to refineries in Texas. Not only would U.S. dependence on OPEC nations for oil be significantly reduced, building the pipeline would also, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute, create as many as 435,000 jobs in the U.S. by 2035.
But incessant delays since 2008 caused by the cumbersome permitting process and environmental-impact assessments have put the project in jeopardy. Even if federal officials — including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar and, finally, Obama — ever get around to approving the project, TransCanada will then face additional years of costly litigation by well-funded environmental groups.
Further complicating the picture is that the pipeline creates opposition between two of Obama’s most important groups of political supporters — environmentalists, who want to press Americans to stop using fossil fuels, and Big Labor, which wants the construction operation jobs. These opposing groups provide millions of dollars in campaign donations and thousands of campaign workers. Obama needs both if he is to have any hope of winning a second term.
The only way to keep both in his corner is to delay the Keystone decision till after the election, which he has apparently decided to do. But TransCanada says it may be too late by then.