Why Our Crumbling Infrastructure Will Never Get Fixed: It’s Held Up by Red Tape

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While funding in Washington is bogged down by partisan resistance to new taxes or cutting spending in the complicated process of trying to replenish the Federal government’s Highway Trust Fund, funding is only one part of the problem of why our crumbling infrastructure isn’t being replaced. Much of it is simply held up in red tape.

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Philip K. Howard, Chairman of Common Good, an organization that seeks to streamline government bureaucracy, recently wrote in The Daily Beast that even with funding, “no government body has the ability to approve the work or to build it in a commercially reasonable way.”


The eastern span of the Bay Bridge connects San Francisco to Oakland. Rust and microscopic cracking were found after one of the 424 high-strength steel rods, intended to keep the tower from being damaged in an earthquake, was removed for testing last year.

“Red tape is so dense that even obvious fix-it projects require years of review. Raising the roadway of the New Jersey-to-New York Bayonne Bridge, for example, was a project with almost no environmental impact, because it used the bridge’s existing foundations and right of way,” Howard said. “But it still required 47 permits from 19 government agencies, and a 5,000-page environmental assessment.”

Paralysis by Analysis

Only 3.6% of the 2009 $800 billion stimulus was actually spent on transportation infrastructure. Bureaucratic delay in such projects gave politicians little incentive to fund projects—the link between new taxes and new jobs was simply too attenuated.

“The way it works in other countries is there’s a department that’s appointed as the one stop shop (for review and permitting) whose job it is to coordinate with, in the case of the Bayonne Bridge, those other 19 departments,” Howard said in an interview. “The permitting agency can’t ignore them, let the project sit or do whatever they want. Having different points of pressure is useful and having a decision maker is essential.”

This would mean that a federal agency would typically preempt state and local entities on interstate projects.
Since so many state and federal agencies are involved in the minutiae of civil construction, these projects are also leaving a lot of waste on the table.

Howard writes that multiple decision-makers almost always cause paralysis. Recent streamlining initiatives include a “permitting dashboard” and new inter-agency committees charged to work things out. The 2012 “Moving Ahead for Progress” transportation law included 30 pages of new procedures designed to accelerate approval. Therein lies the problem: All it accomplished was adding more mandatory meetings.

Changes to Procurement Law

Rigid procurement laws, driven by fear of favoritism, have resulted in a convoluted bureaucracy that is readily manipulated by bad contractors. Specifying every contract detail in advance, for example, typically results in costly change orders and bureaucratic delay. In the case of the Bay Bridge, the California Department of Transportation waived its own procurement process because of the size and scope of the Bay Bridge project, only to find that new precautions put in place to ensure the strength and safety of steel reinforcing rods in the project were not followed by the entire supply chain.

Howard and Common Good argue that America can build twice the infrastructure in less than half the time and employ almost 2 million Americans if it can muster the political will to modernize a few laws.

Comment (1)

  1. William Tippins says:

    Exactly. It’s why we will never catch up in transportation infrastructure to Europe and Asia. We have greedy, selfish (representatives) in congress that only care about themselves, and making every American citizen dependent on the government from cradle to grave. We once were considered to have the finest infrastructure in the world. Now, you can’t go to any major city without running into a pothole or two. All we can do is get used to it. It doesn’t matter who gets elected in 2016 (Even if we manage to survive until then), the America we know and love is dead.

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