Steve, Mark, Jonathan, and I have now weighed in on the importance of (i) deficit spending on an economic stimulus (ii) focused on investment rather than consumption (iii) that can get up and running quickly. Mark points at all the great research that didn’t make it into the outrageously stingy budgets of the last decade, but we still need to get off the dime in ambitious, big, expensive infrastructure projects of all kinds.
The “fast” criterion applied to construction raises a question that has puzzled me for a long time: why does it take so long to do anything physical, when it didn’t used to? Without computers, with truly primitive technology (rivets! and A7 steel) applied to really daunting engineering-frontier challenges (tunneling under two rivers), the entire Pennsylvania Railroad complex from New Jersey to Long Island, including Pennsylvania Station, RIP, was built in seven years, with the station opening in 1910. The railroad then built the Hell Gate system, connecting to the Bronx and New England, in four years. The IRT Subway, a cut-and-cover operation threaded through city streets and building foundations from City Hall to 145th St., opened four years after the contract was signed. And the Empire State Building (to pick just one other example from New York) took eighteen months from a shovel in the ground to a key in the door (still no computers, and still hammering hot rivets). New York has never been an easy regulatory environment.
Doing stuff fast is not an East Coast specialty: the SF Bay Bridge, two long bridges and a tunnel through an island, took just over three years; the Golden Gate, four. The Richmond yard turned out a Liberty Ship in about seven weeks, with three coming down the ways every day in 1943.
Whatever we had back in the day, we’ve lost it. Replacing only the eastern section of the Bay Bridge began in 2002 and we contemplate completion in 2013! And the Boston Big Dig, admittedly more complex than any of these except perhaps the IRT, took 13 years. We have a problem here: we’re apparently getting worse and worse at doing big projects, and delay is a big problem. A tract housing development can be providing shelter as soon as the first few units are built, but a bridge or a rail line just spins the meter until it’s finished. I don’t believe OSHA and the admirable drop in the death and injury rate for workers can be blamed; it just doesn’t take that long to put orange caps on rebar ends and tie off ironworkers to safety lines; same with environmental controls: pulling a cover over a dump truck takes minutes, not days.
Regulatory requirements for public hearings, and lobbying battles, delay project starts. This is costly, and should be streamlined. But it doesn’t trap millions and millions of dollars’ worth of physical stuff in an unproductive state for years. I’d like one of the first research investments of the Kleiman part of the stimulus package to be a full-court press on accelerating construction back to speeds we last saw in the middle of the last century.