What went wrong?
The Golden Gate Bridge. In my humble opinion, the most beautiful bridge in the world. No other span both blends and complements the natural landscape with such sublimity. No other structure looks so haunting in the fog and so gorgeous in the sun. It’s a singular piece of human achievement. Yet, the Golden Gate Bridge is also a testament to what used to be achievable. A piece of work that increasingly stands out like the Roman Coliseum must have in the Dark Ages, evidence that society has not such much plateaued as regressed, at least from a building standpoint.
Take a look at America’s Top 10 Public Works Projects according to Invention & Technology Magazine:
The National Road
First Transcontinental Railway
Air Traffic Control
Oregon Coastal Highway Bridge System
The Tennessee Valley Authority
Interstate Highway System
The Big Dig
It’s an impressive list. Most of these projects are instantly recognizable. There are also several important omissions, most notably the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet there’s also something depressing about it: the age.
Most of the 20th century saw an explosion in productivity and technology. Even during the Great Depression, public works projects were completed on a massive scale. Bigger and bigger projects were completed, often on time and on budget. Then, sometime between 1970 and today, that progress stopped. Not only did progress stop, it decreased. The biggest public works projects that were completed in the 20th century not only remain unsurpassed, they remain unequal. The capacity of the US government to design and build peaked over a half-century ago.
The longest bridge in the US? The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana. Opened in 1956. Tallest dam? The Oroville Dam in California. Completed in 1968. The private sector seems to have peaked around a similar time. Measured by roof height, the Sears Tower in Chicago is still the second tallest building in the country, and it was completed in 1974. Only Central Park Tower, completed in 2020 in New York City, has surpassed it.
Going back to the top ten list, most of the individual projects are from long ago. The maintenance of the US interstate system is important, and the internet plays a massive role in modern society, but it is telling that large-scale brick-and-mortar projects have largely ceased. The Big Dig in Boston is the lone exception, and that project is the exception that proved the rule. First planned in the early 1980s, the Big Dig’s goal was to reroute I-93 from an above-ground highway that cut right through the heart of the city, to a tunnel that would go underneath the same route. The project was finished, but took fifteen years and cost $8.08 billion to complete, far over the planned seven years and $2.8 billion.
The Golden Gate Bridge provides the clearest example of how far standards have fallen. Construction for the bridge began in 1933, during the Great Depression. It was completed a mere four and half years later, ahead of schedule and under budget. The total cost, accounting for inflation, was only $590 million. Today it stands as one of the most beautiful structures ever built. Compare that to one of the most recent improvements on the Golden Gate Bridge itself. Because the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most common places to commit suicide in the world, people have long argued about a netting or barrier along the pedestrian walkway. Construction finally began on a steel net that would run 20 feet below the bridge. Those took seven years and cost $200 million. Yes, it took almost twice as long and cost a third as much to put nets along the bridge in the 21st century as the bridge cost in the 20th century.
What makes this all even worse is the number of technological innovations over the last century. Workers on the Hoover Dam didn’t have near the equipment that workers today have. Calculations had to be done on paper. Digging was often done on hand. Yet projects were completed on time and under budget. That contrasts with New York City Water Tunnel No. 3, a giant underground tunnel that will be used to store potable water. Construction began in 1970 and after many, many, delays, isn’t expected to be finished until 2032. For those that are counting, that’s 62 years, and that’s if you believe the project will really finish in 2032 (hint: it won’t). Compare that to the 66 years it took humanity to go from the first flight to the first moon landing (1903-1969). Something has gone wrong.
There are several causes behind the high costs and delays in American public works projects. Some of this increased cost is a good thing. Construction used to be cheaper 100 years ago because it was perfectly acceptable to have a number of workers die during the build. Going back to New York’s Water Tunnel No. 3, for the first 25 years of the project, an average of one person a year died in construction-related accidents. Since 1997, however, there hasn’t been a single death. That’s an impressive improvement, and higher construction costs are worth it if it saves lives.
That said, worker safety is behind only a fraction of the increased costs and delays associated today with every American public works project. NYU put together a team a few years ago to study why costs are so high in the United States. The result, the Transit Costs Project, which focuses on why subways are so expensive in the US, has some extraordinary findings. First, the US is one of the my expensive countries to build transit in. Second, the gap is enormous. Subways in New York City cost twenty times the subways of Seoul, South Korea. The United States is far more expensive than France, so it isn’t because of unions or a lack of work ethic.
Fortunately, the Transit Cost Project has identified several key problems with American public works projects. The Executive Summary does a good job given an overview of the three basic issues: physical structures, labor, and procurement and soft costs. I’ll discuss each in brief.
Physical structures refer to the tunnels and stations of a subway. Multiple NYC subway stations are twice as long as the platform riders will board on. In other countries, stations are only 10 percent longer. There’s also a lack of standardization. Instead of making one design and altering it to meet individual locational needs, each station is designed independently and from scratch. This results in stations that are almost as expensive as the rest of the system, which stands in contrast to other countries, where stations are closer to a third of the cost of the rest of the system.
Labor is of course going to be an expensive part of any project. However, American public work projects stand out for the number of consultants and supervisory employees they have relative to front-line workers. Labor costs in the US can be twice as high as in Sweden, a country with a similar wealth level and technological access. There are far too many white workers involved in American projects. The whole “one guy digs while five guys watch” is a common issue.
Procurement and Soft Costs refer to how decisions are made and how plans are drawn up. The United States has a host of agencies that are needed to complete any project. They often have a “pervasive culture of secrecy and adversarialism”. Different agencies view their responsibilities as their personal fiefdoms are are loath to relinquish any power. US projects also utilize much more project management costs than in other countries.
Combine all these issues, and we have the world we live in today. In sharp contrast with the 20th century, the 21st century is one of stagnation. It is impossible to imagine a bridge over the Long Island Sound linking Connecticut and Long Island, a large dam being built that would surpass those currently operating, or a dozen nuclear power plants coming online in the next 30 years. Yet, these are all possible, and none utilize technology less than a half-century old.
The good news is that the Transit Costs Project does offer solutions. Best practices are out there. Scandinavia, South Korea, and even Southern Europe have procedures in place to keep costs relatively low. Simply by copying others, the United States could again build projects that will make generations look at and wonder.