Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Is America a Serious Country?

When Tom Friedman claimed that America is no longer a serious country-- because we cannot build high speed train lines-- many people rose up to denounce him. They insisted, even in the comments section of this blog, that no one needs to build trains any more, because we have airplanes.

And yet, as quoted previously, Victor Davis Hanson made the same point, in relation to the efforts to build a high speed train line from San Francisco to Los Angeles:

High-speed rail is a tragic joke. It is inert and unfinished. The ostentatious half-built overpasses stand like modern graffiti-stained versions of Stonehenge. Its only ostensible purpose seems to have been a green plan to siphon money from road repair and expansion. 

Be that as it may, America has an infrastructure problem. Our infrastructure is crumbling and we are not doing very much to deal with it. If, instead of specifying high speed trains, you consider the example to indicate a larger problem with infrastructure, you will get over the notion that we do not need high speed trains.

As for why our infrastructure is falling apart, the standard answer seems to be that we have not thrown enough money at it. Spend more and fix the roads, the bridges, the tunnels and the environment. OK, the latter has nothing much to do with infrastructure, but, truth be told, the recent infrastructure bill threw money at the green new deal and probably also at the teachers’ unions.

But now, mirabile dictu, just when the infrastructure bill passes Congress and is signed by our president, the New York Times reports that the problem with American infrastructure is not so much the lack of spending, but the mismanagement of the money that had already been allocated.

One is somewhat surprised to see this in the Times, but the story rings true.

The article begins in Honolulu, with a rail transit project. Here is what happened:

As Honolulu sprawled into new suburbs west of Pearl Harbor over the last two decades, city planners proposed an ambitious rail transit line that would sweep riders 20 miles into downtown. The $4 billion estimate in 2006 was hardly cheap, amounting to $200 million per mile.

The cost escalation since then has been an engineering marvel all its own. Concerns over Native Hawaiian burial grounds stalled early construction, then problems with welding and cracks in the tracks appeared. Earlier this year, engineers realized that in some sections, the wheels were a half-inch narrower than the rails. Order new wheels? Tear up the tracks?

The launch dates slipped forward and the cost estimates crept upward — at latest count, $11.4 billion, with a target completion date of 2031.

Government inefficiency, bureaucratic incompetence, money and time wasted-- a projected finish date ten years from now, a quarter century from the time the first plan was proposed.

It’s not just that we cannot build high speed train lines from New York to Chicago. America’s government cannot build much of anything anymore. That is the story. The Times has it:

Honolulu’s tribulations are far from a lone cautionary tale. To the contrary, they signal the kind of cost overruns, engineering challenges and political obstacles that have made it all but impossible to complete a major, multibillion-dollar infrastructure project in the United States on budget and on schedule over the past decade.

As the nation sets out on a national spending spree fueled by the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill signed by President Biden this month, the job ahead carries enormous risks that the projects will face the same kind of cost, schedule and technical problems that have hobbled ambitious efforts from New York to Seattle, delaying benefits to the public and driving up the price tag that taxpayers ultimately will bear.

One would like to know whether the government officials and agencies who keep botching these projects are diverse, but the information is not readily available. And yet, we retain our suspicions.

Tied up in red tape. Incompetent management. Make-word bureaucrats. Activist environmentalists and other lawsuit-prone groups. Add it all up, and nothing happens:

Agencies have less internal technical talent. Legal challenges have grown stronger under state and federal environmental laws. And spending on infrastructure as a fraction of the economy has shrunk, giving local agencies less experience in modern practices.

The last sentence is ironic, indeed. Perhaps we have not spent enough money, but, in truth, the money we have spent has largely been wasted.

The infrastructure spending plan is unlikely to rescue some existing infrastructure projects that are bogged down with problems.

And even with the new infusion of money, analysts say it will be tough to ramp up infrastructure progress as swiftly as envisioned in the current timetable.

The construction industry is facing sharply growing costs for steel products, up by 142 percent in the last 12 months, and other key materials. Shortages of skilled labor are worsening, exacerbated by Covid-induced retirements.

We are short on skilled labor, but we might also ask how the labor unions are contributing to the calamity that is our crumbling infrastructure. And, do governments have staffs full of competent managers? Don't laugh at that one.

The Times continues, pointing out that other democratic governments have similar problems:

Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at the University of Oxford who has studied scores of projects around the world, found that 92 percent of them overran their original cost and schedule estimates, often by large margins — in part, he said, because cost estimates are “systematically and significantly deceptive.”

“A lot of projects are not delivering what they promised to deliver,” he said.

In Baltimore this month, Mr. Biden lamented that U.S. infrastructure was once rated the world’s best and now, “You know what we rank in infrastructure? Thirteenth in the world.

In some cases, U.S. construction costs are higher than those in Western Europe and democratic nations in Asia, according to an upcoming University of California, Berkeley, analysis, said Ethan Elkind, a law professor and director of the school’s climate program.

“It is a lot harder to build projects here, and we are not as skilled at doing it,” he said.

As it happens, none of this seems to have been part of the public debate when Congress was considering the infrastructure bill last month.

As for the California high speed rail project, the one that Hanson bemoaned, it is obviously a boondoggle:

When California voters approved a bond in 2008 for a high-speed rail system from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the project was supposed to cost $33 billion and be completed by 2020. The job is now projected to finish in 2033 for $100 billion, though those estimates are dated and there is an $80 billion funding gap.

The ambitious project, the nation’s most serious effort to build a full-scale bullet train, has encountered serious delays because of land acquisition issues, environmental litigation, permit setbacks, employee turnover and significant design changes. The problems have triggered political infighting even with the Democratic supermajority in California.

Yes, indeed. The Democrats are in charge of everything in California, including the rail project. But, they are beholden to constituents, to activist environmentalists, to trial lawyers, to teachers’ unions and to diversity quotas. Put it all together and you get-- failure.

We find the same problems in my own neighborhood, also run by Democrats, though with an occasional Republican mayor:

Lengthy delays have also affected New York’s East Side Access extension of the Long Island Rail Road, which is supposed to cut up to 40 minutes off commuter time on the last segment, from Queens to Grand Central Terminal, with up to 24 trains per hour at peak times.

Conceived more than a half century ago, with a construction contract awarded in 2006, that project was supposed to be completed by 2011. Early estimates put the cost at $2.2 billion, then $4.3 billion in 2006 and $6.4 billion in 2008. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority now envisions completion in December 2022 at a cost of $11.1 billion. Design changes, underground tunneling problems and coordination with other agencies were some of the factors in the delays and cost increases.

And, in Washington State:

One of the nation’s most important environmental infrastructure projects, and perhaps the most technically difficult one, has been underway in Central Washington State for decades at the former Hanford nuclear weapons site. Since 2013, major construction has been stopped at two partially built plants to treat and vitrify 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge.

When an independent review in 2015 found 362 significant design problems, the Energy Department announced a 17-year delay and estimated the system would become fully operational in 2036.

The problems included the failure to anticipate the potential for an earthquake to damage equipment and the possibility that the chemical processes to separate high-level radioactive materials could cause explosive hydrogen gas to form.

The delays have pushed the Energy Department to adopt an alternative that would start treating low-level waste by the end of 2023, Washington State officials said. The last cost estimate for the plant was $17 billion, up from $12.3 billion in 2013 and about $4 billion 20 years ago.

The Biden administration is selling the new legislation as fast as it can. It is claiming that the new law will produce a miraculous revival of America’s infrastructure.

One Oxford professor, quoted by the Times, demurs:

Mr. Flyvbjerg, the Oxford professor, said infrastructure keeps getting more expensive at a time when many products, such as televisions, refrigerators and computers, get cheaper or better each year.

“Big infrastructure is becoming cost prohibitive,” he said, a problem he blames on institutional sclerosis at government agencies that keep repeating mistakes and choose infrastructure projects that are unlikely to succeed.

The mistakes, he said, include a lack of transparency to the public, flawed contracts that put government agencies at the mercy of contractors and a failure to attract enough private investment to bear some of the project’s risk.

The new infrastructure law, he said, does little to change the outlook.

And yet,

The environmental review process has become so complex, in part to defend against inevitable lawsuits, that neither state agencies nor federal departments can write and review the documents without teams of outside consultants.

In all cases, if this is true, then surely America is no longer a serious country. If the government bureaucracy is a model for diversity, equity and inclusion, these policies have obviously failed. As for the Green New Deal, it is far more the problem than the solution.

Anyway, our compliments to the New York Times and reporter Ralph Vartabedian for a job well done.


David Foster said...

See my post Like Swimming in Glue, from...15 years ago!

...pretty sure the situation hasn't gotten better since then.

I will note that we were able to build *pipeline*, which are a very important part of 'infrastructure', just fine..until the current administration.

And over the past 2 decades, the infrastructure for the Internet and mobile voice/data...fiber optic cable and wireless towers...has been built out....although I understand that some wireless towers lack adequate backup generators because of local restrictions on storing the fuel.

Sum Ting Wong said...

I retired from a state department of transportation and there was no fraud in the sense of the work not getting done, but change orders and subcontracting in construction contracts are the road to riches for many. The politicians go along with it because of the donations from contractors. It’s not limited to roads and bridges. Our $100 million dollar library ended up costing $150 million as those in charge helped themselves to subcontracting and change order goodies.

Rick O'Shea said...

The joke around my state's department of transportation is that construction projects are the means by which money is transferred from the taxpayer to the politicians and their cronies.

Sam L. said...

"One is somewhat surprised to see this in the Times, but the story rings true." I trust nothing from the NYT.

"Honolulu’s tribulations are far from a lone cautionary tale. To the contrary, they signal the kind of cost overruns, engineering challenges and political obstacles that have made it all but impossible to complete a major, multibillion-dollar infrastructure project in the United States on budget and on schedule over the past decade." It's POLITICS, allllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll the way dowwwwwnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn, with $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ money on top! "GRAFT UBER ALLES!!"

Sam L. said...

Here's a wild and crazy thought: Americans like to drive their cars! To wherever they want to go! And when!

Christopher B said...

To David Foster's points you can Elon Musk vs NASA (and their infatuation with Bezos's Flying Penis)