A story in The New York Times, about how New York State has slowly embraced the design-build construction process, demonstrates both the past failures of blue governance, and possible opportunities awaiting the Democratic Party, which has struggled to win state and local elections recently:
The replacement of the Kosciuszko Bridge, a vital link between Brooklyn and Queens, with a new crossing has succeeded where many New York transportation projects have failed. It is on time and on budget.
The first of two side-by-side, cable-stayed bridges will open in the spring, just three years after state transportation officials awarded $555 million to a project team. It was built using a contracting process that saves time and money by bundling together the design and construction phases of a project instead of carrying them out separately.
This integrated approach — known as “design-build” versus “design-bid-build” — eliminates the need for two separate contracts and bidding processes, reduces the lag time after a design is completed but construction has yet to begin, and ensures closer coordination among project owners, architects, engineers and construction workers from the start.
But design-build projects like the new Kosciuszko Bridge remain the exception in New York even as they have become widely used elsewhere. The State Legislature in Albany has authorized the use of the design-build process for only a few state agencies and authorities since 2011, despite efforts by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, both Democrats, to expand its use.
Design-build is a big step in the right direction, and it’s one that New York (which lags other states) couldn’t be taking soon enough. In a sign that he understands this, Governor Cuomo reportedly pressed President-elect Donald Trump to embrace the design-build model for his own infrastructure proposals last month. But design-build faces opposition from special interests that Democratic politicians can’t easily ignore:
[S]ome state legislators, state labor leaders, construction industry groups and others have raised concerns about expanding the use of design-build. These critics say it could lead to fewer public sector jobs as more design and engineering work is contracted out by government agencies as opposed to being done in-house, and could allow for a more subjective selection process as contracts are evaluated for the “best value” and not simply the lowest bid.
Translation: unions and groups that benefit from the need to hire additional employees and lawyers to coordinate procurement contracts, change orders, and other issues don’t want a new system that saves money by cutting labor costs.
Labor is the biggest driver of infrastructure costs, and you can’t save much money without touching it. Over the past few decades, private firms across industries have become more efficient by replacing people with machines and by streamlining processes so they don’t have to hire as many workers and outside consultants. Because of pressure from special interests and organized labor, governments (blue and red) haven’t been able to realize these efficiencies. As the cost of hiring a single employee continues to skyrocket thanks to health care and pension expenses, the urgency of reducing labor needs grows.
Both New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and Cuomo have come around to supporting design-build, but special interests continue to stand in the way. How blue politicians manage this opposition will be a key determinant of the future of Democratic Party. The old system is unworkable, and states that rely on it are bordering on ungovernable in some ways—if the government can’t afford to maintain public roads, what is it good for? But the new system weakens core Democratic constituencies by reducing the government payroll. Balancing these interests is a big challenge, and it remains to be seen whether there are Democratic politicians up to the task. The future of the Party may depend on the issue.