Michael Barone has a thoughtful essay on our ability to conceive and create significant construction projects in today’s world. He bemoans a smaller bridge project in Washington DC that has been going on for 42 months with no end in sight. He compares it to the building of the Pentagon in the forties that as the largest building in the world at the time was conceived,constructed, and opened in less than three years. The number of similar current “big idea” morasses clumsily produced by the public sector brings forth the premise that we have lost the ability to conceive of the planning, coordination, and logistics that are required to bring big projects to fruition in a time frame that any individual would recognize as an achievement in their lifetimes. The “Big Dig” in Boston was an effort to reduce traffic congestion over a 3.5 mile stretch of central Boston conceived in the 1980’s, begun in 1991, opened in 2006 ,and an estimated 22 billion dollars later still being shaped by shoddy construction, leaks, ceiling collapses, and minimal improvement in traffic congestion. The “Deep Tunnel” project in Milwaukee invested billions and two decades in an effort to capture and treatment water runoff before it reached Lake Michigan – it has resulted in multiple sewage back-ups into homes with any steady rain and frequent needs to dump millions of gallons of raw sewage into Lake Michigan – not exactly the vision of its idealistic planners. The World Trade Center catastrophe stimulated the plans for a monumental restoration of the subway center, the skyscrapers, and a fitting memorial, all of which languish 9 years later in a state of paralysis and delay, with no conceived process for showing the necessary will to initiate and complete the project.
Have we lost the ability to work and sacrifice together as a nation to achieve the significant projects that benefit us all in order to focus only on our own security and gratification? Our government has become wholly interested in its control of the individual life, securing ifor the individual perceived freedom from want, responsibility, damaging health choices, and personal decision making capacity, at the expense of doing what it once did best – achieving the great ideas that were beyond any one individual or group, for the betterment of all. In 1931, the United States committed to the Boulder (Hoover) Dam project on the Colorado river, completing the dam by 1936, supply water and electricity to millions in the midst of a great economic depression. The total construction cost? -49 million – which paid for a 12oo foot long 726 foot high structure that 70 years later still generates 4.2 billion kilowatt/hours of electricity every year.
This clearly is not an issue about money, intelligence, capacity, workforce, imagination, or need. This remains a crisis of lack of will and overwhelming self-absorption. Can we once again achieve processes where strangulating regulations don’t destroy momentum and focus on the larger good, where important public needs are subjugated to the attack and erosion of personal needs, where corruption and shoddy leadership suffocate the realization of good ideas in reasonable time frames? It is truly the question of our time, and reflects on us all.