Big Government Forgets How to Build Big Projects

Michael Barone

8/19/2010 12:01:00 AM - Michael Barone

When I drive from downtown Washington to Reagan National Airport, I often encounter delays on the George Washington Parkway due to construction of a small bridge over an inlet of the Potomac.

It's called the Humpback Bridge, and the Federal Highway Administration began reconstruction in January 2008. It was supposed to be finished last February, but the estimated completion date is now June 2011.

That's 42 months to finish a bridge that doesn't rise more than 30 feet over the water.

From the top of the Humpback Bridge, if you glance to the south, you can see the Pentagon.

The Pentagon was built in 18 months.

From the groundbreaking on Sept. 11 (yes!), 1941, it took only 15 months for Gen. George Marshall and Secretary of War Henry Stimson to move in.

Those metrics tell us something about how government worked then and how it works now. It's taking more than twice as much time to reconstruct a small bridge than it took to build the world's largest office building more than half a century ago.

Now it must be conceded that the two cases are not precisely comparable. Construction crews leave the Humpback Bridge during rush hours. They built the Pentagon 24/7/365.

Still, the contrast is stunning -- and unsurprising. In human societies, learning is supposed to be cumulative. But government has unlearned how to build big projects fast.

Steve Vogel's vividly written "The Pentagon: A History," published in 2007, tells the story of how the Pentagon was built and makes it clear that it was typical of the times.

Gen. Brehon Somervell was handpicked by Marshall to supervise the project because, as head of the WPA work-relief agency in New York City, he had built LaGuardia Airport from start to finish in 25 months. Try building an airport in 25 months today.

Somervell worked fast. One Thursday evening in July 1941, he ordered the War Department's chief architect to prepare the building's general layout, basic design plans and architectural perspectives, and have them on his desk by 9 a.m. on Monday morning.

Today government takes longer to do things. The Obama Democrats' stimulus package was passed by Congress in February 2009. Of the $140 billion authorized for infrastructure spending, less than $20 billion had been disbursed 12 months later.

The $8 billion of stimulus money set aside for high-speed rail won't be used for years in the Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger rail artery in the nation, because the Obama administration ordered a strict environmental review.

Somervell and his WPA boss Harry Hopkins would have had things moving a lot faster than that. Of course, they didn't have to deal with the intricacies and incrustations of federal procurement policy that have been built up over the years.

They didn't have to get clearance from environmental agencies and then prepare for the lawsuits that in our time area are inevitably launched by environmental advocacy groups (part of the Pentagon was built on mud flats; any endangered species there?).

They didn't have to engage in endless negotiations with state and local agencies. In New York, Somervell settled his disagreements with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in brief shouting matches, after which everyone quickly went to work.

A case can be made that some of these changes are beneficial. Recent reconstruction of the Pentagon showed that some of the cement that was supposed to be poured never was. A nearby semi-shanty town inhabited by blacks was ruthlessly torn down. We do want to protect the environment more than Americans did in the 1940s.

But even those conservatives who don't want government to do much do want government to do the things it should be doing reasonably rapidly.

When three days after the BP gulf oil spill, the Dutch government offered their oil-skimming ships and oil-cleansing technology. The Environment Protection Agency rejected them for weeks because the cleaned ocean water would contain more than 15 parts per million of oil. Somervell wouldn't have taken five minutes to make the opposite decision.

Big government has become a big, waddling, sluggish beast, ever ready to boss you around, but not able to perform useful functions at anything but a plodding pace. It needs to be slimmed down and streamlined, so it can get useful things done fast.

By the way, do you think they'll actually finish the Humpback Bridge by next June? Me neither.