Monday, December 12, 2011

"Shovel Ready" Projects

Last week's  NYTimes had a piece on Vermont's efforts to recover from the damages wrought by Irene.  Apparently they're almost done replacing and repairing the bridges, roads, etc. which were damaged, making repairs much faster and much cheaper than the governor had originally thought possible..

A couple other data points: there was the replacement of the Minneapolis bridge over the Mississippi and the repair in California of earthquake damage, IIRC, to a bridge.  In all three cases, construction went faster than people thought possible.

Compare this with Obama's complaint that the "shovel-ready" projects funded by his stimulus turned out not to be so shovel ready after all and the recurrent comparisons of the speed with which China is doing big construction jobs with our slowness.

Now the key to the fast work in VT, CA, MN was it was reconstructing something, not doing it for the first time, and the "something" was critical infrastructure. So on the one hand you had a vocal constituency for fast action; all the people whose commutes were disrupted or travel prevented by the lack of a workable bridge or highway would make their voices heard. I well remember from my working days how upset I could get if my commute was screwed up.

On the other hand, there's really no opposing force: the taxpayers recognize that damage due to natural disasters has to be repaired.  And there's no NIMY's at work--the neighbors, if any and there may not be many, have already been living with the bridge or highway and have adjusted their lives to it.  Anyone who was really hurt by the initial building has likely moved away, so the calculation of utility in this case shows everyone wins and no one loses.

Unfortunately this logic doesn't work for most projects.  Yes, there are a few straight reconstructions, but in most cases projects involve changes, replacing an old 2-lane bridge with a 4-lane, widening and straightening a highway, etc. Change means there's likely NIMBY's, who must be assuaged by a consultation and review process.  That's what democracy requires, unlike the command state of China.

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