Sunday, May 29, 2016

Why America is bad at building new infrastructure

Sometimes small stories capture large truths. So it is with the fiasco that is the repair of the Anderson Memorial Bridge, connecting Boston and Harvard Square. Rehabilitation of the 232-foot bridge began in 2012, at an estimated cost of about $20 million; four years later, there is no end date in sight and the cost of the project is mushrooming, to $26.5 million at last count.

This glacial pace of implementation does not reflect the intrinsic technical difficulty of the task. For comparison, the Anderson Bridge itself was originally completed in just 11 months in 1912. General George Patton constructed nearly 40 times as much bridging in six months as American soldiers crossed the Rhine to win World War II. And even modern-day examples abound; for instance, in 2011, 14 bridges in Medford were fixed in just 10 weekends. ...

In order to adhere to strict historical requirements overseen by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation had to order special bricks, cast by a company in Maine, to meet special size and appearance specifications from the bridge’s inception in 1912.

...once construction had already started on the bridge, the contractor, Barletta Heavy Division, discovered that an existing water main would need to be relocated. With the subsequent change order and additional Massachusetts Water Resources Authority permitting processes, an additional 357 days were tacked on to the original contract completion date.

To cap it off, after resisting for years the inclusion of pedestrian underpasses in bridge rehabilitation, MassDOT changed course in 2014 and agreed to revise the design so as not to preclude the construction of an underpass in the future. The contractor then had to move a major utility pipe so that an underpass could fit underneath; meanwhile, another 256 days of delay were added to the project. The entire project is now 22 months behind schedule.

Delay, then, is at one level the result of bureaucratic ineptitude and the promiscuous distribution of the power to hold things up. At another level, it is the failure of leadership to insist on reasonable accountability to meet reasonable deadlines. Perhaps, at a deeper level, it is the failure of citizenry to hold government accountable for reasonable performance — a failure that may in part reflect a lowering of expectations as trust in government declines. ...

The Anderson Bridge is approximately one-sixth the length of the bridge Julius Caesar’s men built across the Rhine in 10 days in 55 BC. Caesar’s feat is admired not just for its technical mastery but also for its boldness. An allied tribe had offered boats to carry Caesar’s troops across the river, to avoid the difficult task of bridge-building. Yet Caesar rejected this offer, on the grounds that it would not be “fitting for the prestige of Rome.”
--Lawrence Summers and Rachel Lipson, Boston Globe, on American sclerosis