Consider the Chrysler Building on Manhattan’s east side. With 77 floors and
standing 1047 feet high, it was the world’s tallest building when it was completed in 1930. Designed by architect William van Alen for Walter P. Chrysler, it is widely considered the best example of the Art Deco style. It remains a jewel in the Manhattan skyline, especially at night when its spire is illuminated by special lighting systems. Established as a National Historic Landmark in 1976, in 2007 it was ranked ninth among favorite buildings by the American Institute of Architects. An ironic note: as of 2008 it became 90% owned by the Abu Dhabi Investment Fund.
[Figure: Photograph by David Shankbone, in Chrysler Building, Wikipedia, 2016.]
The efficiency of the construction of the Chrysler Building is worth noting. Construction began on September 19, 1928 and was completed on May 27, 1930, a little over 20 months, without
loss of a single worker. Both it and The Empire State Building involved major technical
challenges and required close coordination with city authorities, but were completed in less
than two years and remain objects of pride in New York City.
Besides the ability to build monumental constructions quickly, the effectiveness of urban
infrastructure maintenance prior to mid-century is illustrated by the fact that the cost of a
subway or bus ride in New York City remained a nickel between 1904 and 1944, during which
time the subways were systematically extended (Markowitz 2003). The magnificent Chrysler
and Empire State buildings in New York City could be constructed efficiently before 1932 in
part because there was a unitary permitting pathway through city authorities. These offices
were generally occupied by managers with engineering expertise. The engineering profession
had a high status in the U.S. from the 19th Century through mid-twentieth century [see
chapter on engineering in (Manheim 2009). Engineers’ training included business and finance as well as rigorous science in order in order to enable them to prepare cost estimates and integrate construction projects into societal operations. Engineers were known for their esprit and pride in their profession. They served in manufacturing and construction but were also
sought after in administrative and management functions in cities.
A new system came into being in the 1970s. The U.S. reached a peak of
productivity and also pollution in the 1960s. After a national environmental crisis
in 1969 manufacturing and industry were perceived as the primary sources of
risk to the environment and public health. In addition to a series of
groundbreaking federal environmental laws in the 1970s (Manheim, 2009),
multiple local permitting authorities were considered desirable to provide
constraints on the power of economic forces.
The downside of the well-meaning transformations has been displayed since the
1980s with a steam tunnel explosion in Manhattan, the collapse of the I 35 bridge
in Minneapolis and Boston’s Big Dig. First planned in 1982, the Big Dig
was conceived and pushed by Governor Michael Dukasis’s brilliant Secretary of
Transportation, Fred Salvucci, who had two engineering degrees from MIT and a
passion to solve Boston’s horrific traffic impasses.
However, the Big Dig required nine years just to gain local, state, and federal permits, and
was not completed until 2007, with its estimated ultimate cost of $22 billion
representing a 3.6-fold cost overrun from initial estimates. It involved tunnel leaks
and a collapse, causing death of a motorist, and the massive scandals involving fraud
And waste, including some $450 million awarded by courts in restitution funds.
Much blame was placed on the construction coalition of the Bechtel Corporation
with Parsons-Brinkerhoff. However, when one examines the proliferation of private
and public interests that had to be placated or bribed, the endless delays incurred
by new demands by influential constituencies, and the high-level politics involved
in securing federal funding, it seems clear that Bechtel’s design and construction
operations were severely constrained by politics.
The in-depth research report on the Big Dig by Nicole Gelinas (Gelinas 2007)
noted rules involving overtime for police officers required to watch over all
construction. Union workers, minority groups and women were promised quotas
for jobs. Mitigation of impacts promised by the state eventually accounted for a
third of the cost e.g. “North End apartments were outfitted with air conditioning,
soundproof windows, and firm mattresses as residents settled in for a decade of
construction”. More than $1 billion was needed to upgrade a bridge that business
leaders, residents, and the nearby city of Cambridge considered ugly.
Environmentalists won promise to preserve three quarters of the land made
available by demolishing the former artery, and an island in Boston Harbor was
converted from a former waste disposal area to a beachfront park. Archeologists
were paid to catalog artifacts back to colonial days, and an aggressive rodent
control project was launched. In short, the Big Dig became a milch cow for
stakeholders that had permitting authority or influence.
Local residents felt assured they would pay for the cost with “ten cent dollars”
because both Massachusetts and the Congress were dominated by Democrats
ready to tap the federal government for funding. Majority leader and future
Speaker of the House of Representative Thomas “Tip” O’Neill had inserted
“placeholder funds” for the Big Dig into a blueprint for completion of the Interstate
Highway System in 1976. In 1987 President Reagan vetoed a highway bill that
contained the Big Dig’s first major funding, but O’Neill and Ted Kennedy garnered
enough political support to override Reagan’s veto. They did this by approving
many other states’ goodies.
Next, let’s consider the more recent extension of Washington DC’s Metro system.
A superior tunnel proposal to Dulles Airport in Fairfax County was sidelined in
favor of a cheaper aboveground system in order to gain federal subsidies. Only
after the decision was made did information about potential cost savings using a
Spanish tunnel boring machine come to light.The DC-area project is now well over budget
and behind schedule. Had it been followed efficiently, the costs of the tunnel option might
have been no greater than the present operations while leaving room for greater use of
valuable land in Tyson’s Corner and other affected areas of Fairfax County Virginia.
Projects or outlays funded through Boston’s Big Dig project may have been
desirable considered independently. But they were not included in the original
plans and cost estimates. The fragmented permitting system that took shape in
the wake of the environmental regulatory revolution of the 1970s, soon led to
slowing down or paralysis of infrastructural development throughout the U.S.
This illustrates the problem potentially introduced by the lure of federal
funding. Federal support is obviously desirable and can potentially
stimulate needed local development. However, in practice it opens the
pathway to decision to a widened and more complicated political process
including the potential of influence peddling. That pathway almost
invariably increases the cost of projects.
The U.S. is now faced with a national infrastructure crisis recognized by both
parties and which will potentially cost $ trillions. The pathway from the Chrysler
building to the Big Dig needs to be revisited as the nation plans overdue
upgrading of infrastructure.
Gelinas, N. (2007). Lessons of Boston’s Big Dig. City Journal, available from
Manheim, Frank T. (2009). The Conflict Over Environmental Regulation In the
United States: Origins, Outcomes, and Comparisons with the EU; Springer
Publishers, 321 p.
Markowitz, Michael (2003, April 28, 2003). New York City Subway Token, 1953-2003.
available from http://www.gothamgazette.com/transportation/1799-nyc-subwaytoken-