Economy Industry Uncategorized

Infrastructure then and now: why our projects are so complex, delayed, and expensive

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


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