John Zaccheo and Kael Weston: Dream big, build big, used to be the American way

American infrastructure spending used to be an area of true bipartisanship.

(photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society) John F. Kennedy speaks at the Tabernacle at Temple Square on September 26, 1963.

In a speech in September 1963 at the Salt Lake City airport, two months before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy focused on that scarcest of resources in our arid state – water.

In the youthful leader’s words: “So water is the key, the management of water … is the key that will open a very bright future.” Standing before cameras and next to Utah Democratic Senator Frank Moss, Kennedy pressed a buzzer that activated the first generator at Flaming Gorge Dam, with an engineer confirming, “Mr. President, the generator is now running at full speed.”

This was U.S. infrastructure built to last.

Half a century later, Utah is the fastest-growing state in the nation – and even more dry. A brewing water war among Western states over the Colorado River centers on a proposed pipeline – a pipe dream in an era of mega-drought – that would further drain Lake Powell toward a sprawling St. George. Our state’s booming retiree mecca remains dotted with green golf courses bounded by an expansive red rock desert suited to tortoises, lizards and ant hills.

This mirage of growth amid shrinking water sources is not what Utahns had in mind in 1963 regarding the future of the Beehive State.

Last week, President Joe Biden signed into law a landmark infrastructure bill that will bring much-needed resources to Utah. Of Utah’s elected federal-level representatives, only Sen. Mitt Romney voted in favor. Sen. Mike Lee and Reps. John Curtis, Blake Moore, Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens voted against the billions of dollars for new roads, bridges, airports and broadband. All five have advocated tax cuts, particularly for the wealthy. But where are their voices on common good projects that serve as the muscle in our vast country dependent on interstate commerce? Utahns who get up early for work and get home late – then do it all over again — seem to be the ones forgotten in these party-first political calculations.

American infrastructure spending used to be an area of true bipartisanship because of its popularity. It benefits everyone. One of us, a nonagenarian, is old enough to recall the Federal Aid Highway Act under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and, later, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” initiatives. The other writes as a Utahn with deep family roots in Milford Valley, a remote area which reflects both the past and, let’s hope, the future of Utah. Once home to Union Pacific trains mostly, Milford is now surrounded by fields of solar panels and wind farms amid the sagebrush plains and hog farms.

The Biden administration’s follow-on “Build Back Better” legislation has passed the House but is not yet through the near evenly divided U.S. Senate. This program, if approved, will invest in human infrastructure, in our neighbors, including universal pre-K and childcare subsidies; an extension of the Child Tax Credit, which has halved childhood poverty in the U.S.; lower prescription drug costs, such as for life-saving insulin; expansion of Medicare and Medicaid; affordable housing; clean energy alternatives; and much more.

In August 1964, less than a year after JFK’s death, Lady Bird Johnson dedicated the Flaming Gorge Dam while visiting isolated Dutch John, Utah, where U.S. Bureau of Reclamation employees lived.

“No one can follow the trail I have followed the last four days without catching the spirit of the West,” she said. “It has been the spirit of adventure which made bold pioneers and brave frontiersmen – the spirit of optimism which caused men and women to dream big and build big.” After her speech, the First Lady joined a local BBQ.

Dream big. Build big. The American way of yesterday – or of today and tomorrow, too?

Apart from Romney, Utah’s congressional delegation seems to have forgotten the power of big dreams that can lead to big projects in our big country. Perhaps this is because they are mired in the small politics of distraction and division within a fractured GOP that Ronald Reagan would not recognize. Plenty of hardworking Utahns, from Daggett to Kane to Tooele, have not forgotten. Their blue-collar livelihoods depend on these kinds of projects.

Historic infrastructure investments across our country are both overdue and wise. Utah’s mega-drought appears far from over with hydrologists predicting measly annual snowpack, a disappearing Great Salt Lake, alongside significant population growth. Californians and Texans among others have discovered Utah in a big way. In the years ahead, many more people will follow.

And the generators at the 500-foot-high Flaming Gorge Dam? Almost six decades old now, they still supply hydropower to Utahns.

John Zaccheo

John Zaccheo, a 94-year-old Rotarian, is a former pizza and Italian restaurant owner and business executive who has called Utah home for almost five decades.

Kael Weston

Kael Weston, author, teacher, former U.S. State Department official and Rotarian, was the Democratic Party nominee in 2020 in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.