Reston Spring

Reston Spring
Reston Spring

Friday, March 14, 2014

Why America (including Fairfax County) stinks at building infrastructure

The Week online newspaper asks the question, "Why is it so expensive to build a bridge in America?"

It also provides the answer in its subtitle, "The answer: Our greedy and undemocratic political culture"

The article compares the pathetically high price and low quality of bridge construction efforts in the United States with those in Europe.  It traces the usually reported causes:
1. Expensive labor. From the top brass at New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority: "The MTA is required to overstaff projects so that the same [tunnel boring machine] work, for instance, that can be done in Spain with nine workers must be done in [New York City] with 25 workers."
2. Out-of-control private contractors. From Stephen Smith at Bloomberg: "Agencies can't keep their private contractors in check. Starved of funds and expertise for in-house planning, officials contract out the project management and early design concepts to private companies that have little incentive to keep costs down and quality up."
3. A crap procurement process. The classic American way to pay for a big project is to round up about half of the funding (or even less), start construction, and then use a sunk-cost-fallacy to get the rest. This, obviously, is not conducive to efficient or speedy projects. (Looking at you, California high-speed rail.)
But the writer, Ryan Cooper, takes the matter further:
The reality is that when it comes to cost and quality, America is doing basically everything wrong. Again, we're not just a bit behind the curve — we're ridiculously, embarrassingly behind the curve.
The fact that both left- and right-aligned institutions (public employee unions and private contractors, respectively) are implicated here is evidence that this isn't a typical left-right situation. And if we look internationally, both Singapore (very free-markety) and Sweden (unembarrassedly socialist) manage much cheaper building costs than America.
This is basically about our greedy and opaque political culture.
The U.S. is a low-trust society, by developed-world standards, and our infrastructure institutions are usually a complex, stunningly corrupt hodgepodge. It's nearly impossible to get transparently funded projects through our janky political institutions, so instead of doing the slow and patient work of building democratic support for a new project and explicitly voting for the needed spending, which can then be completed without fear of backlash, we try to hide it through "independent" authorities, or the tax code, or duplicitous ballot initiatives.
 Here are a couple of big examples locally:
  • More than $6 billion (and still rising) to build 23 miles of railway and eleven stations for the Silver Line when the forecast in 2004's Final Environmental Impact Statement (REIS) was $3.5 billion.
  • Transportation infrastructure in Tysons for the next 40 years to accommodate the Silver Line mushroomed from a 2010 County estimate of $2.0 billion to $3.0 billion in January 2012 in current dollars and $5.5 billion in inflated dollars (3%/yr).  And (a) that doesn't count interest on capital projects nor (b) has full engineering analyses been completed on any of the many needed projects, which will increase costs further.  
  • The Soapstone Connector, originally projected in 2008 by RMAG to cost $42 million, including associated roadways, is now projected to cost $92 million--and it won't be built until the next decade.
Most worrisome about all of the above is that none of them have been completed and, indeed, only spending on the Silver Line for construction has begun.  The cost of these projects will almost certainly rise substantially.

And one small example:  The County budgeted $500,000 to complete 500' of sidewalk to the south side entrance of the Wiehle Station.  That's $1,000 per foot!   The work is done, but we don't  know the final cost.

Read the full article here. 

1 comment:

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