Nine Years versus Nine Months

After nine years of litigation and regulatory maneuvering, the Secretary of the Interior has given the approval for construction of the Cape Wind offshore power-generation facility. (Well, sort of…there are still a few more regulatory hurdles to clear before any actual wind turbines can be erected.)

Nine years is a long time, and it’s worthwhile to look at what Americans have been able to do in that amount of time…and in much shorter amounts of time…in other periods of our history.

Hoover Dam. The contract for this massive project was signed on March 11, 1931, and the first concrete was poured on June 6, 1933. The finished dam was dedicated by President Roosevelt on September 30, 1935, and by October 1936, it was transmitting electricity from the Colorado River to Los Angeles. A little over five years, from contract signing to power in the wires.

Empire State Building. The decision to build this structure was made in early 1929. Excavation for the construction started in January 1930, and the building was complete on May 1, 1931. About 2 1/2 years, from “go” decision to a finished building.

Atlas Missile. In 1953, during a dark period of the Cold War, the Strategic Missile Evaluation Committee was formed to evaluate the threat of Soviet ballistic missiles and the feasibility of US ballistic missile development. The committee’s report led to the decision, in the spring of 1954, to reorganize and to greatly accelerate the Atlas missile program. Flight testing of Atlas began in 1956, and in November 1958 an Atlas nose cone flew 6000 miles and landed accurately. Operational deployment of the weapon began in 1959 and 1960. Six years, from “go” decision to operational deployment, for a weapons system that required major technological advances as well as conventional design and manufacturing work.

Manned Lunar Mission. In 1961, President John Kennedy called for a national program to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. This was accomplished in July 1969…8 1/2 years, for something that had previously been in the realm of science fiction.

Turboelectric Drive for Destroyer Escorts. A less galactic project than some of the above, but still important and revealing. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy initiated the construction of several hundred destroyer escorts for antisubmarine work. But the propulsion systems normally used for these vessels required the precision cutting of very large gears, and all the gear-cutting machinery in the country was booked for other high-priority war work. General Electric proposed turboelectric drive as an alternative…probably not quite as good a solution from a performance standpoint, but one having the advantage of actually being manufacturable in a relevant time period. To produce the required equipment, a new plant with 15 acres of floor space was constructed in Syracuse. It was built and equipped with machine tools…and 3,000 new employees were hired…in nine months.

In today’s environment, this plant would not have been built and staffed in nine months. Rather, huge amounts of time and energy would have been expended in a search for somebody to blame for not having had the foresight to procure an adequate number of gear-cutting machines…and dozens of additional ships would have been sunk for lack of escort protection.

To return to the Cape Wind project: it is noteworthy that these extreme delays have taken place even though wind power is viewed very favorably by the vast majority of environmentalists. And Cape Wind is by no means the only “green” energy program that has been seriously delayed in this manner. “Progressives” have created a hydra-headed monster of negativity and delay that they cannot turn off, even when they want to.

Is it time to say (with apologies to Edmund Burke): The age of creative achievement is gone; that of lawyers, bureaucrats, herd-following academics and holier-than-thou environmentalists has succeeded, and the glory of America is extinguished forever?

I don’t think we’re at that point yet, but we’re getting there, and it is going to be very difficult to turn these trends around.

A few links and references:

Nifty time-lapse video of the Hoover Dam construction (via ShopFloor)

My post on the Hoover Dam, the Atlas missile program, and the difficulty of getting things done in today’s America: Like swimming in glue.

Destroyer escort story is from Men and Volts at War (GE, 1947)

12 thoughts on “Nine Years versus Nine Months”

  1. iirc the Transcontinental RR took something like five years to get done, and part of that was during the Civil War. Today a project like that would simply never get off the ground.

  2. There are more recent examples of fast performance in public works. In 1994, an earthquake destroyed a number of major structures in west Los Angeles, including several large freeway interchanges. One of those elevated sections had fallen during the quake and a highway patrolman on his motorcycle had run right off the end of the remaining freeway 60 feet in the air. He was one of the fatalities.

    The prediction was years of freeway tangles. However, Pete Wilson, a Republican, was governor. His program to rebuild the damaged areas has been a study in urban planning. One thing he did was offer bonuses BY THE DAY for work completed ahead of schedule. Bill Clinton (the first black president) refused to suspend Davis-Bacon laws.

    Even so, Opened up to competitive bidding, the contract to rebuild the collapsed I-10 bridges was signed on February 5, less than 20 days after the quake. The freeway opened for traffic April 11, thus completing the work a mere 66 days after it began, and getting traffic moving again in only 85 days after the earthquake.8

    It can be done but you need a mean SOB in charge and Pete Wilson certainly fit that model.

  3. One more recent infrastructure project, very different in nature and very successful, was the commercialization of the Internet. Although the government-funded R&D underlying the Internet began in the 1960s, the great period of commercialization ran roughly from 1991 (when restrictions on commercial access to NSFNet were lifted) to 2001…in 10 years, the net went from something used mainly by academics and defense contractors to something used on a daily basis by tens if not hundreds of millions of people, and the capabilities–in terms of user interfaces and applications as well as bandwidth–increased dramatically. A very high % of the creative part of this work was done by new companies.

    The reasons the Internet was able to succeed include:

    1)A highly deregulated environment
    2)Capital markets allowing for start-up funding
    3)Largely “invisible” infrastructure, making it less of a target for NIMBYs
    4)Large/old-line companies that were threatened were mostly too dumb or too slow to figure out what was going on & try to stop it before it was too late.

  4. Another example to put with the Cape Wind project is the San Francisco Bay Area’s replacement for the eastern span (cantilever section) of the Bay Bridge. In October of 1989, a section of the current bridge collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake. It was quickly realized that the existing span could not be properly updated to current seismic safety standards, so a new bridge was needed.

    Contruction on the original Bay Bridge was started in 1933 and it was opened for traffic in November 1936 (six months before the more famous Golden Gate Bridge).

    We are still waiting for the completion of the new bridge. It took over 10 years just to settle on a design, mostly due to East Bay politicians insisting on a “signature” bridge and the
    addition of a new bikeway. Construction has been on-going for around 10 years now, and the current plan is to complete and open the new bridge in late 2014. There is some doubt about this plan, since the (Chinese?) steel supplier is missing deadlines. A total of 25 years to replace a bridge originally built in a little over 3 years!

    Additionally, note that the bikeway does not go completely across the bay. Instead, it ends at Yerba Buena/Treasure Island. There is no plan to retrofit the western (suspension) span portion of the bridge to add a bikeway. Yerba Buena/Treasure Island is very lightly populated (constituting a few hundred people), is not a biking destination and is unlikely to ever be one.
    Under pressure from the politicians, who in turn were under pressure from the local militant bicycling coalitions, we are spending $100 million on an unneeded bikeway

  5. 1 Kgs 19:4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree; and he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.”

    Welcome to the world that liberalism has made. It is full of ironies, there is nothing that liberal long for and worship more than the the first two administrations of FDR. They always wanted to have a new CCC and a new WPA. The fact is that they couldn’t do it, because the bureaucratic machinery they built can’t move nearly fast enough, and the unions they empowered object to letting amateurs take their jobs.

    What few people realize is that liberalism, leftism, and environmentalism (they are all one thing is different aspects) is a fundamentally aesthetic movement that is rooted in a sepia toned vision of the past.

    Never have slums looked more beautiful than in [Terence Davies’s documentary] Of Time and the City. In dreamy footage from the 1950s of the laboring classes’ shabby 19th-century back-to-backs—two rooms down and two up, kitchen papered in newsprint—on severe, narrow, treeless streets, the squalor is plain. But joyous children (and their dogs) are everywhere: tearing through the maze of alleys, clomping through puddles, singing with delight in their cheap, tidy school clothes in their cement (again treeless) schoolyards, and playing in grimy streets under the watchful eyes of worn-out mothers who sit on their well-scrubbed front steps in their threadbare frocks. Though tatty, these neighborhoods were what would now be called, somewhat patronizingly, “intact communities.”

    Davies’s movie is a proudly class-conscious paean to working-class grit. Scenes of brawny laborers young and old working as one as they heave steel cables, and women scrubbing the week’s wash in giant public outdoor tubs (conditions that look more Third World than 1950s England) are accompanied by liturgical music that all but sanctifies the toil. It’s also a tribute to working-class respectability: “queuing modestly for modest entertainment”; the sports heroes and heroines who, Davies notes in a tone progressing from the admiring to the acidic, “knew how to win and lose with grace and never to punch the air in victory.” Concomitantly, the film is a rhapsody to working-class domesticity. Davies summons up memories of toast and cocoa after a long day’s blissful outing to the seashore, and, on Christmas Eve, pork roasting in the oven, the parlor cleaned, with fruit along the sideboard: a pound of apples, tangerines in tissue paper, a bowl of nuts, and our annual, exotic pomegranate.

    … Repeatedly he reveals a lost world that was, by his lights, better. The contrast between footage of the neatly dressed, well-mannered proletariat of his youth and the pasty, slatternly, slack-jawed, pub-crawling consumers who throng present-day Liverpool’s outdoor malls on Saturday nights couldn’t be plainer.

    * * *

    “Intimate History: A grand history and an elegiac new film explore Britain’s recent, and irrecoverable, past.” By Benjamin Schwarz

    Robert Frank’s eulogy for John Kenneth Galbraith is also revealing of the aesthetic bias that undergirds liberalism. He quotes the man himself:

    “The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered, and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards, and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground.”

    I can see his readers cringe. “Mauve and cerise, how hidieous?” Never mind that said color combination was never produced by Detroit. Air conditioning, power steering and power brakes are all standard items now, but in the 1950s they hinted of luxury and decadence. Of course, the same sights would be available to someone driving a pious black Ford stripped of all frippery.

    His proof of underfunded government is equally wan. Admittedly government is responsible for the state of the highways, but contractors in Massachusetts have always been equal to the task of spending every nickel appropriated and not giving fair value. Big Dig, anyone?

    But the next three items are all aesthetic. Blighted buildings might require some funding, if only to demolish (don’t tell the preservationists), but billboards and utility polls are privately owned.

    Frank, as a liberal in good standing, rides to Galbraith’s defense: “Mr. Galbraith’s arguments may have failed to win the approval of free market economists. Yet, unlike many of his critics, he recognized a bad allocation of resources when he saw one.”

    Which is an affirmation of Galbraith’s aesthetic bias, and a demonstration that liberalism is based on contempt, not compassion.

  6. I should add that there is some value in never doing anything. Windmill farms are egregiously expensive, and will never produce usable or timely amounts of power. It is a good thing that they are not built.

    Not only that, Cape Wind provided hours of entertainment in watching young Bobby, try to explain his position.

    Fortunately, the Salazar decision is just the end of the first act. Next comes a decade of litigation.

  7. Yes, it’s aesthetic. It’s the willful ignorance of costs and the principled refusal to compare costs and benefits. How else to justify rail-based mass-transit schemes that cost orders of magnitude more than do automobile roads with higher capacity, or bans on domestic energy exploration/production, or laws forbidding armed self-defense that effectively increase crime rates. And above all there is the lionization of FDR and his disastrous economic policies.

  8. RS…”1 Kgs 19:4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree; and he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.””

    In one of Heinlein’s short stories, a Martian is asked why he just sits around doing nothing all day. His response: “My fathers have labored, and I am weary.”

  9. The first nuclear reactor to generate electricity was the Experimental Breeder Reactor I in Arco, Idaho.

    Construction on this first-of-a-kind reactor began in late 1949 with initial criticality in May, 1951 and first electrical output December 20, 1951. Let’s call it 27 months.

    Today, it takes 50+ months just to get the LICENSE from the NRC on a new reactor, even a “normal design” that’s been built before and has been pre-certified and is to be built on a site with existing, operating nuclear power plants.

    In my professional practice, I see a huge reluctance to do ANY innovation in nuclear due to the regulatory headaches such innovation will trigger.

    For the Cape Wind project, another year or two and people would start to see the economic idiocy of using wind for electrical power generation and the project might have been justifiably avoided.

    So perhaps we should consider the BAD projects that could have been avoided by today’s longer review and approval processes.

    Perhaps the Johnstown dam? The Hindenberg? Other examples? No fair counting pioneering efforts that uncovered new technical issues or where beyond scientific understanding at the time.

  10. David, I just returned from Dallas (my 1st time in TX – envy me!) and the Fair Park Expo’36 is fresh in my mind’s eye. The whole complex, six magnificent Deco buildings, fountains and esplanade were built on 8 acres, furnished and opened for viewing, in 10 months!

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