As Big Projects Go Up, Americans Faith in Government Goes Down

The government wasn’t always bad at big projects. Take the Hoover Dam for example. Tens of thousands of workers toiled day and night to literally move a river before pouring the 4.4 million cubic yards of concrete that make up the dam. The construction finished two years ahead of schedule and millions of dollars under budget – a sentence that you’re unlikely to ever hear again in reference to a federal infrastructure project.

Or take the Apollo Space Program. In less than a decade the United States progressed from never placing a man in orbit to landing a team of astronauts on the moon.

Could today’s government accomplish either of those impressive feats? As former adviser to President Obama, Lawrence Summers, writes for the Washington Post, probably not –

Walk from the US Airways shuttle at New York’s LaGuardia Airport to ground transportation. For months, there has been a sign saying “New escalator coming in Spring 2015.” The Charles River at a key point separating Boston and Cambridge is little more than 100 yards wide. Yet traffic has been diverted for over two years because of the repair of a major bridge and work is expected to continue into 2016.

The world is said to progress, but things that would once have seemed easy now seem hard. The Rhine is much wider than the Charles, yet Gen. George S. Patton needed just a day to create bridges that permitted squadrons of tanks to get across it. It will take almost half as long to fix that escalator in LaGuardia as it took to build the Empire State Building 85 years ago.

Is it any wonder that the American people have lost faith in the future and in institutions of all kinds? If rudimentary tasks like keeping escalators going and bridges repaired are too much for us to handle, it is little wonder that disillusionment and cynicism flourish.

Instead of fast and efficient construction, as was the case with the Hoover Dam, we get projects like Boston’s “Big Dig.” The goal of that boondoggle was to reroute a highway that cut through the heart of the city into a shorter, more efficient tunnel. The project was scheduled to be completed in 1998 at a cost of $2.8 billion, but was completed nine years later and will likely cost $22 billion, a debt that won’t be paid off until 2038.

If, like me, you are a DC native then you have the pleasure of witnessing bureaucratic lethargy nearly every single day. The most infuriating example is the Metro’s escalators, which go months without getting fixed, work for about a day, and then break down again. The latest example is the Metro’s decision to replace its “vertical transportation” (escalators to the simpleminded) at the Bethesda station, a project expected to take two and a half years.

If any of this seems crazy that’s because it is.

Part of the problem is political. It’s impossible to pick projects based on merit when politicians are fighting to bring money, jobs and prestige to their districts. Part is bureaucratic. Government rules often incentivize contractors to low-ball offers while at the same time requiring rigid labor practices. And part is short sightedness. For instance, federal irrigation projects in California have created toxic runoff that poisoned groundwater, forcing them to consider spending $2 billion to clean up their own mess. Governments are simply bad at thinking through the long-term impacts.

This may seem like a trivial discussion, especially in light of serious issues like health care costs and foreign policy debates. But roads and escalators and bridges are things that taxpayers see and experience every day. To the extent that the government can’t get these details right Americans will have trouble putting their faith in government to handle the big things.

The skepticism is well founded, if a tad sad. For although conservatism has always encouraged caution in establishing the role of government it has always recognized that the reputation of government is an important national asset. Part of the new Republican majority’s job is to restore faith and trust in government. One of the best ways to do that is to pare back the functions it performs.