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Why Nothing Is Shovel-Ready Anymore

If you want to understand why liberalism doesn’t work very well anymore, travel up the Hudson River a few miles from New York.

Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas isn’t the only thing inciting New Yorkers this week. Controversy is heating up over a bridge that maybe never should have been built.

The longstanding plan to rebuild the Tappan Zee Bridge—a massive, crumbling monstrosity inexplicably built at the widest point of the Hudson River—will be one of the most expensive construction projects the state has ever undertaken. As the New York Times reports, the bridge has a projected cost of $5.2 billion dollars:

The plan is to replace the current seven-lane bridge with either one or two structures projected to have 15 lanes — 8 for traffic, as well as shoulders and breakdown lanes, a lane for pedestrians and bicyclists and space for designated bus lanes. It would be the first major bridge built in the New York City area since the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, in 1964.

Many environmentalists oppose the plan due to the environmental damage from the massive dredging operation that is necessary to build a new bridge. Other environmentalists support the bridge, but claim that a wider bridge without room for public transit would increase sprawl and lead to a higher carbon output. Local politicians and planning associations, meanwhile, have added their own lists of concerns to the pile.

These kinds of complaints are unfortunately all too typical of construction projects today. There are so many controversies, so many lawsuits, and so many competing interests that negotiations take an enormous amount of time and money. The time between planning a project and actually carrying it out stretches into decades. To those who bemoan the lack of “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects in America: this is why.

Even if you are a Keynesian and believe that deficit spending helps the economy to grow, infrastructure projects won’t do the trick anymore. By the time you’re actually actually able to get the project off the ground, the recession has been over for years.

And the problem runs deeper than infrastructure. Our bureaucratic institutions are ponderously slow. We need new structured interactions between laws, courts, and  agencies that can process information and make decisions in real time — rather than putting everything in bureaucratic limbo for decades.

Slow governmental process is a facet of the blue social model and the progressive era civil service bureaucracies and slow procedures that model has historically entailed. And the high costs associated with it are among the reasons that the model is dying.

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  • Ulysses S. Rant

    Well said, Professor. Liberals are having a hard time accepting that what they’re experiencing is an iron-clad rule of economics — the law of diminishing returns.

    As bureaucracies grow bigger and entrenched interests grow stronger, efficiency and productivity become ever weaker. That’s why we need a new, balanced model that rejects the extremes of “big government” on one side and “free markets” on the other.

  • Jim.

    Are you sure this is a Blue Model problem? In the heyday of this iteration of the Blue Model (4.0, was it?) this sort of operation would have been much faster.

    I propose that the problem is that Blue and Green don’t mix.

    Although that may just be one symptom of the ossification that comment #1 points out… once too many entrenched interests get veto power (or even just power of review) everything slows to a crawl.

    Perhaps it would simply be better for companies to say, “New York’s big enough already, and can’t really expand conveniently. Let’s put our new facilities somewhere that isn’t overbuilt, where our employees can have a decent standard of living without our having to pay for an exorbitant cost of living.”

    To illustrate this point, someone ought to calculate how much it would cost to purchase the right-of-way for California’s San Fransisco – Los Angeles high-speed rail. (Just along the San Fransisco peninsula, the cost would be staggering.) Compare that to the purchase price of the right-of-way for the entire transcontinental railroad. You could probably include the Great Northern and Southern Pacific routes too.

    Things just get harder when established interests start stacking up.

  • alex scipio

    “… why liberalism doesn’t work very well anymore…”


    Like it ever did? At least what today’s “Liberals” (who are anything BUT Liberal) pretend is “Liberalsim.” What passes today for “Liberalism” is Statism, Liberalism’s antithesis. As soon as you recognize that Classical Liberalsim is today represented in the Tea Party, and today’s “Liberals” are really Progressives bent on the antithesis of Classical Liberals, eg enlarging Leviathan at the expense of the citizen, you recognize the LIBERALISM works fine – it’s what created the Tea Party and took Congress away from the Totalitarian party that rules by fiat to overturn the results of Congressional votes (DREAM, DOMA) or accepts in THEORY the written declaration of the Court on working with the State, but rejects in entirely in spirit and moves immediately to ensure the irrelevancy of the Court’s ruling.

    “Liberalism” works; but what today is CALLED “Liberalsim,” is not; it is ILLIBERAL to its core.

  • Walter Sobchak

    “a new, balanced model that rejects the extremes of “big government” on one side and “free markets” on the other.”

    An antinomian autocracy, of course.

  • Corlyss

    Good reasons why there is no such thing as a shovel-ready project, like there was in the ’30s.

    Here’s another – the middle class are all college educated now. They don’t dig ditches. Keep tabs on how many former investment bankers sign up for Bloomberg’s project. Construction as a trade is now the almost exclusive purview of illegal aliens, with the exception of the people who own the firms. So the illegals and their families in Mexico will benefit, and the business owners will beneft, but that’s it.

  • The Reticulator

    I steal this: “I propose that the problem is that Blue and Green don’t mix.”

    But could I also propose that as population gets denser, it’s harder to swing our elbows without hitting other people’s noses? So all kinds of approvals are needed in one way or another. Although I detest and oppose the leftwing way of regulation (designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer) a less corrupt system of regulation for something like bridges is still going to be cumbersome.

  • Richard Treitel

    I have a work of fiction here, written in 1957, a good Blue year, and a sentence from it reads: “Given in advance that the taxpayers had wanted … to build a Bridge …, which is to say, somebody ([Senator] Wagoner himself), had decided that for them, without confusing them by bringing the proposition to their attention …”

    The Blue model was a corporatist model: companies decided what products their consumers wanted, union leaders decided what wages and benefits their members wanted, and politicians decided what public works their voters wanted, without confusing them by bringing these matters to their attention. In short, Daddy Knew Best. (But mommy didn’t know anything.)

    What WRM documents with the Tappan Zee Bridge is the opposite: the voters are insisting on paying attention. They noticed years ago that daddy doesn’t know best. So they jumped to the conclusion that daddy doesn’t know anything, hence they want to vet every major decision (and most minor ones) and add their $0.02 or their $2,000,000,000 as the case may be.

    Oh yeah. I know of a big country where infrastructure projects get built double quick, and never mind what the local people want. Would Via Meadia care to praise its government? (Hint: 2008 Olympics)

  • Russell Snow

    I think this is more a result of the erosion of property rights. If you are free to do on your own land what you want without excessive interference, things can move quickly. Repealing 99% of the regulations we have would start things moving again.
    Markets are good. They will solve the problem. Unless the problem is that people do something other than what you want them to do. Then the real problem is that you are a control freak. Get over it.

  • dave schutz

    No, no, NOT INEXPLICABLE – just north of a 25-mile Port Authority zone, stupid engineering decision but good political one, and Robert Moses was involved.

  • Grant W

    The reason the bridge was built at the widest spot on the Hudson River is simple. It was the closest point to NYC that the state could build without have to involve the Port Authority. Given that the only time you ever hear an honest statement about the Port Authority is when the Feds issue an indictment it was probably a good call. Call it another example of Blue Model failure. Had the Port Authority been tasked to build the Tappen Zee it would still not be finished and the proposed tolls would be larger than Ghana’s national debt

  • Eurydice

    The Tappan Zee Bridge was built in the early 50’s when, presumably, there was less red tape – yet, competing interests still produced an inexplicably placed monstrosity.

    I’m all for speeding up procedures to get to “shovel ready”, but what I don’t think can be sped up is whether a project is “shovel worthy.”

  • bgarrett

    The problem is Rules, Regulations and Restrictions. In other words too much government.

  • BillB

    Every time I hear some liberal bring up Hoover Dam I ask the same question. Doews anyone really think we could actually do a major project like Hoover Dam or the Interstate Highway system today?

    Projects like that would be tied up for years in hearings and red tape

    And all those workers that dies (and are encased) in the dam…every time it happened work would stop for weeks for OSHA investigations (and fines)

    Govt makes it all but impossible to do anything except spend money doing nothing

  • levin70

    It’s not just that nothing is shovel ready anymore, which of course, it’s not. Modern infra is also no longer labor intensive. It has become far more capital intensive. Look at large construction projects today and count bodies, and then go back and look at photos from the WPA era, and you notice that there just are not many actual workers at construction sites anymore.

    So not only does modern infra move at a snail’s pace, it simply won’t and can’t employ the masses the way the democratic party envisions it.

    Kind Regards

  • New Class Traitor

    No, Blue and Green don’t mix, indeed. But sadly, Red and Green do — and the end result is brown (as in solid body waste).

  • Jack Olson

    I recently read Michael Brown’s account of FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina. A memo went out under his signatures which he swears he never signed, to the effect that the thousand DHS volunteers FEMA wanted to send to New Orleans to assist with hurricane relief would first have to report to Atlanta for 1-2 weeks’ training in media relations, adherence to laws against race and sex discrimination, and how to avoid charges of sexual harassment. By then, of course, recovery from the storm would be well underway and the need for the volunteers largely expired. Brown never found the actual author of the memo but he noted the embarrassment to him when it hit the papers. And yet, wasn’t that anonymous bureaucrat following his or her own incentive? When lack of effective CYA represents a bigger threat to your job than ineffective performance of your organization, hadn’t you better make CYA your top priority?

  • Rich K

    Even getting past the beauracracy will only get you to a point where the courts take over the pub crawl.And after and during that phase you have the contractors who try to make progress while sustaining costs that dont stop when the litigation starts.And they only get involved after the bids and bribes they have to submit to get a deal get signed. Etc etc,See “Big Dig”.

  • Don51

    Actually there were shovel ready projects. In my state, local communities and small towns had increment/decrement lists of approved projects to put the money to use. They clamored for some of the funds. However, all the funds were distributed at the capital to the loyal party supporters, like the teachers union to put off reductions for the following year.

    It’s another aspect of the Blue model. It has to be BIG. A hundred little projects in a hundred little communities doesn’t support the image or appearance desired by the bureaucrats to justify their bigness, their centralization.

  • joe forshaw

    May I propose a new federal mandate?

    The “ReadaviaMeadia Post” every day. Low cost, and average national IQ goes up 10 points. Now that’s shovel-ready.

  • Jeffersonian

    I disagree about the Blue/Green incompatability. If the Blue model is about anything, it’s technocratic rule by Top Men. That does not preclude those Top Men from being Green.

  • holmes
  • Caroline

    My friend worked for the government very briefly at the beginning of his career. He got out, fast. The thing that drove him crazy was that government could not handle innovation. Nor could they handle anyone acting outside of their own little assigned pigeon hole.

    For example–at the time business schools were busily teaching their students all the latest and greatest software for tracking financial data. My friend was reprimanded for using that software (even though the government had it available for use) because they preferred spreadsheets to be written by hand. Yes. They wanted him to spend hours upon hours doing spreadsheets by hand.

    Then they held a big meeting to tell their workers that they were going to implement a new (to them) word processing program. They were proposing hiring an outside firm to come in and teach people how to use the program. My friend volunteered to help, as he knew the program inside and out. Silence descended on the room. Apparently volunteering one’s skills is bad form. He was later told by a co-worker that his offer was being used as an example of what not to say at those meetings. Is it any wonder he got out as fast as he could?

    This was 20 years ago, but the government mindset has not improved as far as I can tell.

  • Al Reasin

    The Minnesota highway bridge that collapsed in 2007 and was rebuild in record time, 11 months, and within budget. The state bypassed much of the reviews and regulations to accomplish it.
    I was a power plant construction/startup manager and know first hand what has been done to our ability to start and complete in a reasonable time and cost major construction projects. When I heard that Obama was going to release stimulus money to the shovel ready projects I knew he was either lying or had no idea what he was talking about. After retirement I attended the first series of TEA Parties in February 2009 and have been actively opposing this administration’s increased regulations and freedom dampening policies ever since.
    Caterpillar Corp set up a task force to go after the supposed shove ready jobs and disbanded it after only 2 were found. All to much of the money from the stimulus went to blue counties and required union scale for all projects. The union scale provision required re bidding of projects at a minimum further delaying those that could have been shovel ready.

  • thomas

    I’m an architect and have been saying something to the same effect. For even small projects it takes about 18 months to go through the design process. Added to that, even when something is designed and practically ready to go, you then need to run the approvals gauntlet. We had a project in a northeast state where we were waiting for our business license. The state canceled it’s meeting where they approve licenses, so there was a period of 4 months where you couldn’t get the license. So we needed to subcontract out work to a local company with additional cost. Then the work needed to be reviewed by Planning dept., Zoning dept., then Building dept. all in separate meetings,. All this equals delay, more time, more cost, less productivity, and less ability to make money and a living. All because of red tape.

  • Aloysius

    The Tappan Zee Bridge is where it is because it was built by the NYS Thruway Authority. Any river crossing within 50 miles of the Empire State Building would have been a Port Authority thing.

    One offs like bridges or airport expansions really take the environmental, NIMBY, etc heat. Highway construction just has the backlog increase from five to six years so the contractors ignore the circus and keep on digging.

  • Kavanna

    Blue and Green don’t mix. But the real problem is, indeed, diminishing returns.

    This was the great change that came over “liberalism” after 1965. It went from a forward-looking, optimistic movement of progress (or so was the thinking at the time) to a punitive, backward-looking movement of elite reaction.

    Michael Kinsley coined the perfect term for this more than 30 years ago, “reactionary liberalism.” We all thought that this had been buried in the 80s and 90s. But it came back after 2000, because it’s too attractive for politicians and various pressure groups.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    As a veteran ex-employee of many government agencies I don’t believe everyone understands that the purpose of many government programs and projects is to provide useless jobs. Remember the cartoon where the characters shoveled a pile of dirt and relocated only to have to move it back the next day?

    I just completed a small study of 10 statewide voter approved bond programs in California either initiated by the legislature or by public entrepreneurs. Five water bonds (four initiated by legislature and one by the Nature Conservancy) totaling $18.7 billion produced not one drop of added water for any storage reservoir in California from 2000 to 2006. That’s enough money to build about 4 new large dams. The funds were all squandered mostly on acquiring open space and landscaping around upscale residential enclaves.

    Four entrepreneurial initiated bonds for the state lottery, stem cell research, the high speed rail, and the recently defeated added tobacco tax for cancer research totaling some $13.95 billion produced only about $1 billion a year in lottery proceeds for schools, produced no stem cell cures or breakthroughs, and wasted most of the funding on high speed rail on studies thus far.

    The reason the voters continually passed these “bonds to nowhere” is not that they were entirely duped. The bonds only needed a simple majority – 51% – margin to pass — not the 66% supermajority required by California’s Prop 13. The winning margin in the bond elections averaged 14% of registered voters. So voters weren’t duped because there are no duped voters – just a cabal of voters – call it a tyranny of the minority – who vote for bonds for jobs programs for their self interest and benefit of the Government Class.

    California is about to demolish Prop 13’s supermajority requirement for taxes (via Prop 25, redistricting, and top-two primary). That will mean voters will continue to vote endless public funding for useless programs and projects to provide jobs during what is surely going to be long-term stagnation.

    Those who oppose supermajority voting requirements for taxes say the public interest should not be impeded by a “tyranny of the minority” of 33 percent of the voters. But it is only 14% of the voters on average in California who are passing vacuous bond issues. So the question becomes “tyranny of the minority? but which minority?”

  • Corky Boyd

    A great deal of the delay for government projects is the way they fund them. They dribble the money out through appropriations rather than what private corporations do. They obtain a line of credit and compress building time as much as possible to get the revenue steam going as soon as possible. That’s why, private commercial buildings are completed far faster than government buildings.

    The shocking length of time for the two proposed high speed rail systems (CA and FL) to be completed was/is projected at 20 years form start of construction. And that’s optimistic. It is especially galling to know we did things much, much faster years ago. The transcontinental railroad was completed in less than four.

  • thibaud

    Hear, hear. Fie on those people who support the mountains of red tape, the arrogant unelected bureaucrats and their opaque and capricious processes that waste hundreds of billions annually, that burden the economy with needless administrative cost, that overcharge people and cripple employers and retard economic growth.

    Oops – for a minute there I thought you were talking about our Rube Goldberg healthcare kludge. ie that multi-trillion dollar cluster phuque which the faux-reformers actually SUPPORT, and with such bitterness and mendacity (cf the GOP’s mandate bait-and-switch).

    Never mind.

  • teapartydoc

    I think the point was that public works projects can no longer be construed in terms of short term stimulus to our economy. Did I miss something? What is this panoply of comments about such a simple post?

  • Jim.

    Yet another sad, sad comment about how far mighty “Blue” has fallen…

    The short version:

    Q: “So, what’s the best proof that NASA didn’t fake the moon landings?”

    A: “If they were willing to fake great accomplishments, they’d have a second one by now.”

    29 months after the Columbia disaster that killed the entire crew, we were just barely getting into space again.

    32 months after the Challenger disaster that killed the entire crew, we were just barely getting into space again.

    30 months after the Apollo 1 disaster that killed the entire crew, ARMSTRONG WAS WALKING ON THE MOON.

    Green isn’t the only issue, it’s just one symptom of the Red Tape problem.

  • rym

    The Tappan Zee Bridge is NOT built at the widest point of the Hudson. The widest point is in Haverstraw Bay.

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