Megaprojects are proliferating and infrastructure investments are seen as essential to national economies, well-being and pride.
The tunnel meant to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct seems to say much of what is wrong with American infrastructure.
At $3.1 billion just to replace the viaduct, it sounds outlandishly expensive. Bertha, the tunnel-boring machine, was only recently rescued from useless underground purgatory. It was stuck so long it became a national embarrassment. Comparisons began with Boston’s disastrous Big Dig.
But the Beantown project was much larger. The tunnel price tag is a pittance compared with the $6 trillion or more that America will end up spending on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a few cents at the gas pump. And at the end, Seattle will regain a beautiful waterfront unmarred by a dangerous old concrete highway.
Megaprojects — A sampler
Boston Central Artery Tunnel — “Big Dig”
Details: Major rerouting of freeways through the heart of Boston, placing many of them underground. Plagued by cost overruns and troubles.
Cost: $22 billion
Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway
Details: 819-mile rail line with train speeds averaging 204 mph. These are the world’s fastest scheduled trains.
Cost: At least $32 billion
Gotthard Base Tunnel, Swiss Alps
Details: Designed to move freight to rail from roadways, as well as speeding passenger trains between Italy and Germany. At more than 35 miles, it will be the longest rail tunnel in the world.
Cost: More than $10 billion
Details: 73-mile high-capacity line to speed modern commuter trains across the region underneath London. It is Europe’s largest construction project.
Cost: $22 billion
California high-speed rail network
Details: System would eventually link San Francisco and Sacramento with Los Angeles and San Diego with trains traveling at more than 200 mph.
Cost: Will be built in segments. Total estimate, $98.5 billion
Opening: San Francisco-L. A. segment 2029
The reality is that America has little recent experience with true infrastructure “megaprojects.” California wants to build high-speed rail despite enormous headwinds. But otherwise, the nation is now spending less on infrastructure than it has in years.
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In most cases, the projects are replacing aging structures, such as the viaduct, or are small-scale efforts.
No matter that the American Society of Civil Engineers grades our infrastructure a D-plus, saying $3.6 trillion in investment is needed by 2020.
Or that well-traveled bridges known to be old and risky fall into rivers. That mudslides plague the railroad north of Seattle, including Sounder commuter service and an important freight line for trade, even though the means to solve the problem have long been available. The Columbia River Crossing, and its federal help, went nowhere.
Americans, the people who built six transcontinental railroads, Grand Coulee and Hoover dams and the Interstate Highway System among so much else, have lost their way. American projects also cost more than their counterparts in even other advanced nations.
The rest of the world is not napping. Megaprojects are proliferating and infrastructure investments are seen as essential to national economies, well-being and pride.
To be sure, big projects can bring supersize risks.
“We take on one of these when in fact it’s a chain with a million links,” John Stanton, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Washington, told me last week. “It takes only one link to go wrong and it looks like a glorious mess.
“Part of it is a matter of expectations. When we build a new house, builders built lots of them, it’s a small chain. Are we expecting too much (with megaprojects)? To press a button and expect it to go perfectly?”
He pointed to other factors that work against ambitious infrastructure in America today, such as public officials who underplay the technical and managerial risks, as well as design-and-management-by-committee, a recipe for lack of accountability. One example was the troubled Bay Bridge replacement in San Francisco.
“The Brooklyn Bridge was John Roebling’s baby,” Stanton said. ”One name was driving it and made sure all the parts made sense. It killed him. But they built the damned thing, and it worked.”
Another change concerns contracting methods, he said. Today’s design-build protocol, which attempts to fix costs and timing, risks quality. The old design-bid-build method allowed both public and private entities more control over ensuring quality throughout the timeline of the project.
To be sure, the economics of infrastructure are affected by safety and environmental concerns that didn’t exist before the 1970s. At least 20 workers died building the Brooklyn Bridge; at least 96 on Hoover Dam. Also, cities are denser and NIMBYs more vocal.
Yet while some megaprojects push the envelope, incurring 787-like risks, others don’t. I would argue that much of America’s infrastructure deficit comes from lack of political leadership and the consequences of wars and tax cuts.
Some politicians are opposed to rail projects on ideological grounds, even though they are more necessary than ever to address congestion and the automobile emissions that are helping cause climate change.
Aside from the mantra about rebuilding roads and bridges, most politicians don’t find infrastructure sexy, even the type of leading-edge projects being successfully completed elsewhere.
This is doubly bad because infrastructure creates construction and operating jobs, even whole domestic industries.
A national infrastructure bank to invest in work and leverage private capital would also be helpful.
The killer is that with very low interest rates in recent years, this has been an ideal time to finance projects.
But there’s no getting around the problem of high costs in America.
Stephen Smith wrote extensively on the subject for Bloomberg. For example, Spain has the best tunneling industry in the world and the work costs much less than similar tunnels here. New York’s $5 billion, two-mile subway extension is outlandish by Tokyo or Paris standards.
“A huge part of the problem is that agencies can’t keep their private contractors in check,” Smith wrote.
“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. And even when they know better, agencies are often forced by legislation, courts and politicians to make decisions that they know aren’t in the public interest.”
So America keeps paying big while falling behind.
But we can also be obsessed with what seems like sticker shock, as UW’s Stanton makes clear.
“Even if projects are oversold at beginning, or they might not have gone ahead, it would look like peanuts later,” he said. “Immediate cost-benefit analyses may be missing out on value. The huge value is in years to come. We need to look at the long term, where many these projects have enormous benefits.”
Information in this article, originally published March 21, 2015, was corrected March 26, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly misstated the name of the Bloomberg reporter who wrote about the high cost of New York’s subway extension. His name is Stephen Smith.