“Why it takes so long to build a bridge in America”

by Walter Olson on December 2, 2013

“There’s plenty of money. The problem is interminable environmental review.” That’s Philip K. Howard in the Wall Street Journal [summarized here; related Common Good forum with Regional Plan Association] Excerpt:

Canada requires full environmental review, with state and local input, but it has recently put a maximum of two years on major projects. Germany allocates decision-making authority to a particular state or federal agency: Getting approval for a large electrical platform in the North Sea, built this year, took 20 months; approval for the City Tunnel in Leipzig, scheduled to open next year, took 18 months. Neither country waits for years for a final decision to emerge out of endless red tape.

{ 10 comments }

1 Mike 12.02.13 at 10:14 am

Red tape is leverage. The more delay, the more likely it is that a non-profit environmental group allied with a political party can wring something for itself out of the process.
You can make a decent living just preventing things from being built.

2 Ed 12.02.13 at 12:48 pm

It’s not just the environmentalists. For the past 40 years, they’ve been trying to build a by-pass around a local mall. It’s on one of the main routes from New York and has been the site of numerous accidents because of the heavy truck traffic. First the local merchants fought it because they were afraid of lost business. Then the farmers fought because of lost farm land. Then the people along the river fought it because of their vacation river lots. Each group fought it all the way to the State Supreme Court. Then state didn’t have money for the proposed billion dollar gold plated bridge over the river.

3 No Name Guy 12.02.13 at 12:48 pm

http://www.king5.com/news/investigators/Investigators-520-bridge-118221934.html

“”It’s extraordinary!” said Mike Ennis, Washington Policy Center’s Transportation Expert. “The original bridge cost $34 million to build in 1963. Adjusting for inflation, in 2011 dollars, the existing bridge had a total cost of $245 million. They’ve already spent more in just planning and design than the cost of the original bridge structure. You have to ask yourself as a taxpayer, what are they doing to increase these costs?”

The majority of the money has gone to a long list of consultants for engineering, project management and community relations. Consultants are not cheap. ”

Note the timelines in the above: They started in 1997. Here we are in 2013 – 16 flipping years later.

http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/projects/sr520bridge/financing.htm
Total cost is currently estimated at $4, 130 million (e.g. 4.13 Billion).

So to summarize, bridge in the 1960′s, $245 million (inflation adjusted to 2011). Today, $4,130 million (2012 dollars). Over 16 times as much, INFLATION ADJUSTED. So, this begs the question, where is all the money going? The new bridge won’t be 16 times “better”, nor wider, nor with greater capacity.

4 Mike 12.02.13 at 1:54 pm

Re Ed:
A fair point.
I agree that it is “not just the environmentalists.” However, environmental laws, such as New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act (aka SEQRA) or the Federal NEPA are the main weapons used in these battles against big projects, and environmental groups (supplemented by NIMBYs and opportunistic pols) are the foremost abusers of the process.

5 Seerak 12.02.13 at 3:49 pm

I’d like to ask Phil Howard which “states” in Canada have full input.

The timeline for the construction of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge was fifty years long; about forty-three of them was governments talking. They had a graphic timeline at the public opening, I should have videoed its entire length.

6 gitarcarver 12.02.13 at 4:41 pm

Many of the reasons that are listed in the article and in the comments are real genuine concerns.

But I think that there is another issue as well: OPM (Other People’s Money.)

Despite the rhetoric, politicians and the government knows that there is always a flow of money coming in so keeping costs down, being efficient, being accountable is something that they don’t worry about.

Far too often governmental “leaders” think the answer to all of life’s issues is “throw more money at it.”

It doesn’t matter to some moron sitting on a commission or planning board what the cost of a project is because the money isn’t coming out of his pocket.

7 Jon Q Republic 12.02.13 at 5:19 pm

The decision to spend Federal dollars (public money) on bridges & roads requires that an insane labyrinth of “Process” be followed, all codified in the Code of Federal Regulation. Only one area of that process is purely “environmental”. Another part of the Process is spent navigating a community involvement requirement and a civil rights requirement. If a project needs an easement or a right-of-way on private land, or a development protected public land, there’s even more CFRs that come into play.

Then there’s lots of time wasted navigating the process because there are SO MANY government agencies involved in reviewing a project’s development along the way. Every time a project submittal gets within an Agency, it is an opportunity for it to sit on someone’s desk. From the outside they appear ridiculously slow to get it off their desk. From the Gov’t employee’s point of view, I expect that it’s one or all of the following: 1) 80% of them are demotivated, 2) 80% of them are unqualified to review, 3) They are understaffed because they are underfunded, 4) their daily workload priorities shift with the political winds of the day instead of remaining focused on the taxpayer’s interests. 5) and many more excuses…

8 kimsch 12.02.13 at 6:24 pm

It’s NIMBYs and Environmentalists. Both use environmental review laws and the courts to delay and delay and increase the costs of the project.

We have a road here that’s been delayed and delayed (decades). The NIMBYs say, if the road is built, more people will move into the area.

The current roads can’t take the traffic as is, and Dear NIMBYs, the people are already here!

Wisconsin built their part, nice limited access divided highway, that stops abruptly at the Illinois border. It’s been that way for more than 30 years.

9 mike 12.03.13 at 10:22 am

The major hang-up seems to be the environmental reviewability (and hence, litigability, a new word) of cumulative impacts of a project and what New York’s SEQRA law now calls “secondary” impacts of that project. Where to draw the line in reviewing a project? When can the analysis stop?
With e.g., highways and bridges, those are difficult questions. Thus, confusion and delay, which are of benefit to those who oppose a project, or those , like Senor Fanucci, who merely wish to “wet their beak.”

10 rxc 12.03.13 at 11:27 am

Enviros may not be the primary cause of current delays, but they certainly taught all the other activist groups how to play the game.

It is even happening in France, with the TGV lines. The first ones that were built were pretty close to a straight line – “Ici Paris, Lyon est la!”, but then the artisty types in Provence complained that the proposed route would change the view that Cezanne would have seen of Mt Sainte Victoire. They got the route changes, and now everything takes years to get done.

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