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December 06, 2011

Irene Lesson #4 – You Can’t Spend a Lot of Money When You Don’t Have a Lot of Time

Vermonters already know that the State will spend less than half the amount originally estimated to fix the state roads and bridges decimated by Tropical Storm Irene; this post is for people in the rest of the country who will benefit from the lessons we learned.

The job got done in less than half the time anyone thought it would take – crucially all bridges and all but one state highway have been reopened prior to serious winter weather and in time for the skiers. Turns out that getting the job done fast and getting it done cheap are two sides of the same coin.

The original worst case estimate for this job was $600 million according to a story on VTDigger.org quoting Irene czar Neale Lunderville; but the final toll, according to a New York Times article, will be in the range of $175 million to $250 million. The original estimates were made quickly and were meant to be conservative; the people who made these estimates were literally up to their necks in more urgent problems. But the estimates were indubitably made according to a standard set of estimating formulas which have been in use (hopefully updated) since the time thirty years ago when I was Vermont's Transportation Secretary. History is that estimates tend to go up – not down!

The cost should've come in high. There was no time for competitive bidding. People worked overtime until they dropped (and were probably pretty tired before they dropped). Local supplies of almost everything including people and machines were exhausted. Rocks for building new embankments had to be hauled in on special trains. But the costs came in low.

The VTDigger article explains some of the reason for the savings:

"State officials attributed the drastic reduction in costs to a variety of factors, including the efficacy of emergency construction techniques and the extraordinary dedication of VTrans workers, the Vermont National Guard and private contractors. In all, 500 miles of roads were reopened in just two months after the Aug. 28 storm…

"The state also saved millions of dollars by taking short cuts during the post-Irene emergency that normally would be prohibited under state and federal laws. The standard pre-construction procedures for road and bridge repair were abandoned in order to expedite the process, according to Sue Minter, deputy commissioner of the Agency of Transportation. The processes that are normally followed for transportation projects — federal and state permitting, environmental mitigation, design review, planning, right-of-way purchases – went by the wayside.

"Transportation workers didn't have to keep roads open and contend with traffic. In some cases they used gravel and rock dug from rivers and collected from fields where floodwaters had left deposits of aggregate [my note: Working in the rivers is usually totally off limits]…

"Minter pointed to a bridge project in Newark as an example of how a brief road closure can hasten VTrans work and save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars. A bridge on Route 114 in the town was closed to traffic for one month during construction. As a consequence, it cost $300,000 to build instead of the average $1.5 million pricetag for bridge installation, she said. The bridge was completed in three months, as opposed to several years."

In other words, there wasn't time to spend a lot of money on either bureaucratic delays or costly attempts to keep the public happy by avoiding the inconvenience of temporary closings.

Vermont has learned from its experience. John McClaughry writing on VTTiger.com quotes Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin:

"You can be assured that in the interest of delivering the best possible roads and bridges and transportation infrastructure that we can to the hard-pressed taxpayers in Vermont, we have asked the Agency of Transportation… to assess how we can bring this kind of good news to future road project."

John also quotes House Republican Leader Don Turner asking: "If we can bypass some of those steps in an emergency situation and save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, why can't we do that all the time?"

Like the reconstruction effort itself, learning from it is bipartisan although, as you might expect, there are many who think the state went too far in its rapid reconstruction and would like to make sure that never happens again.

IMHO there are four lessons here:

  1. Americans can still come together and do remarkable things.
  2. Government spends more of our money than we would want it to in order to keep us short-term happy – as in building a temporary bridge instead of telling us to go around during construction.
  3. The regulations which started as well-intentioned and needed protection for neighbors and the environment has turned into a nightmare of expensive delay which at least doubles the cost of both public and private projects.
  4. If we remember the three lessons above and reform both government construction practices and permitting, we can rebuild our infrastructure for less than half of what we thought it was going to cost and have a boom in private construction as well.

Related posts:

Shumlin Appointment of Lunderville as Irene Czar Great non-Partisan Decision

Irene Lesson #2: Nothing in America is Shovel Ready – Until It Has to Be

Jobs Rx: Make America Shovel Ready

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