Why does everything take so long?

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.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.