What Might Have Been

by Ryan Avent

At this time of national crisis, I think it’s safe to say that most of us are constantly thinking to ourselves, what would Michael Dukakis do? Happily, the Infrastructurist’s Jebediah Reed took the time to track down everyone’s favourite Greek hero and ask him. The results are interesting. On stimulus money for Amtrak:

In the current House version of the stimulus package Amtrak and intercity rail got knocked down from $5 billion proposed by the transportation committee to $1.1 billion. You served on the board at Amtrak for many years. Does this bode ill for the funding of passenger rail under Obama?

Well, does Amtrak have a billion dollars worth of shovel-ready projects? No, they really don’t. They’ve got $300-400 million. Could they get up to speed? Yeah, but they’ve got to get up to speed. Part of the problem is that we’ve so under invested in infrastructure for so long that our capacity to do this stuff has been weakened. That’s my concern generally with the infrastructure piece of the stimulus package.

And I particularly enjoyed this exchange:

So, to borrow a phrase, what’s our major malfunction?

Well, there’s a serious public construction management problem in this country. They give you estimates plus or minus 50 percent. Have you ever heard of anything like that? But there’s nothing inevitable about it, and it has everything to do with the kind of direction you’re getting from the public side. When I was governor, we had two big public works projects in Boston. One was the Harbor cleanup and one was the Big Dig. They were two of the biggest projects in history at the time. Both started out with same estimate – around $4 billion. One came in on time and 25 percent under budget. That was the Harbor cleanup. We all know what happened with the other one.

What was the difference?

It was all about the competence of the people running the projects. If I may say, my guys were running the Harbor Cleanup and [former Gov. William] Weld’s guys were running the Big Dig. The reason that the Harbor cleanup was under budget was because the folks running the show in 1989-90 when I was still governor were smart enough to know that you want get out the bid when the economy is down and contractors are hungry. So they bid low. Fine! We accepted their bids. Two or three years later the economy revives and they start piling in with change orders [requesting more money]. Doug McDonald, who at the time was the head of the water resources authority, just sat there and laughed at them. So we got our project on time, under budget. On the Big Dig the change orders must have numbered in the thousands. It’s got everything to do with having people in place who are tough and smart. I had a guy a construction director at the MBTA who was one tough son-of-a-bitch. A career guy who’d been there and knew his stuff. The contractors were scared of him! Work came in on time, on budget, no foolin’ around.

Dukakis closes by saying, “when you don’t do it, you lose your capacity and expertise to do it and do it efficiently.” Now there are other institutional issues that work to make our infrastructure projects slower and more expensive than they are elsewhere, but this factor can’t be ignored. The stunted market for talent in infrastructure fields has no doubt limited the number and the quality of people that choose to pursue such jobs. And those jobs include engineering and planning, but also project management. Building a major new transit system on time and on budget isn’t simply a matter of innate ability in the reponsible public officials; there are skills and best practices that need to be taught and studied.

We haven’t just allowed our built environment to deteriorate, we’ve also forgotten how to fix it. And that’s not the kind of thing we can just pretend isn’t an issue for long-run economic growth.