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Larry Summers Writes on Broken Infrastructure Process, Broken Government

Last week, former US Treasury Secretary and Harvard University President Larry Summers wrote two pieces tying America’s inability to fix our decrepit infrastructure to the larger problems of broken government – particularly government officials’ inability to take charge to achieve even the smallest of accomplishments.

In the first piece for the Boston Globe, Mr. Summers (along with Harvard student Rachel Lipson) outlines the delays and cost overruns in rehabilitating Boston’s Anderson Memorial Bridge. “Rehabilitation of the 232-foot bridge began in 2012, at an estimated cost of about $20 million,” he writes. “[F]our years later, there is no end date in sight and the cost of the project is mushrooming, to $26.5 million at last count.” The project, he argues, exposes America’s national problems with fixing infrastructure:

How, we ask, could our society have regressed to the point where a bridge that could be built in less than a year one century ago takes five times as long to repair today? Here are some of the reasons that have contributed to the delay:

In order to adhere to strict historical requirements overseen by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation had to order special bricks, cast by a company in Maine, to meet special size and appearance specifications from the bridge’s inception in 1912.

At the same time, extensive permitting and redesigns haven’t helped. For instance, once construction had already started on the bridge, the contractor, Barletta Heavy Division, discovered that an existing water main would need to be relocated. With the subsequent change order and additional Massachusetts Water Resources Authority permitting processes, an additional 357 days were tacked on to the original contract completion date.

Infrastructure delays, he concludes, are the result of bureaucracy and the lack of leadership from those supposedly in charge. But he also blames it on the American people for not demanding accountability – “a failure that may in part reflect a lowering of expectations as trust in government declines.”

Mr. Summers builds on the government trust argument in his second piece for the Washington Post. He writes, still using the example of the Anderson Memorial Bridge:

Investigating the reasons behind the bridge blunders have helped to illuminate an aspect of American sclerosis – a gaggle of regulators and veto players, each with the power to block or to delay, and each with their own parochial concerns. All the actors – the historical commission, the contractor, the environmental agencies, the advocacy groups, the state transportation department – are reasonable in their own terms, but the final result is wildly unreasonable.

At one level this explains why, despite the overwhelming case for infrastructure investment, there is so much resistance from those who think it will be carried out ineptly. The right response is to advocate for reforms in procurement policies, regulatory policies and government procedures to make the investment process more efficient and effective. This is all clear enough.

At another level, though, our story may illustrate phenomena that go way beyond infrastructure. I'm a progressive, but it seems plausible to wonder if government can build a nation abroad, fight social decay, run schools, mandate the design of cars, run health insurance exchanges, or set proper sexual harassment policies on college campuses, if it can't even fix a 232-foot bridge competently. Waiting in traffic over the Anderson Bridge, I've empathized with the two-thirds of Americans who distrust government.

People, he argues, won’t trust government to do the big things if they can’t execute the little things properly. This upcoming election, he concludes, ought to be about how we can trade cynicism for progress: “More than questions of personality or even those of high policy, the question of how to escape this trap should be a central issue in this election year.”

Common Good believes the answer is to free officials – and Americans at large – from the encumbrances of law that prevent them from taking action. (We are in particular agreement on his proposed solutions to expedite the infrastructure approval process.) In the coming weeks we will be launching a campaign to implement this vision. Please check back on this space.

Read Mr. Summers’ Boston Globe op-ed (“A Lesson on Infrastructure from the Anderson Bridge Fiasco”) here.

Read his Washington Post piece (“Why Americans Don’t Trust Government”) here.

Finally, writing in the Washington Examiner, Michael Barone ties Mr. Summers’ recent arguments to the writings of Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard. You can read that piece here.