Image: ARC Tunnel construction site
Mel Evans  /  AP
A large, rusty metal wall is seen in North Bergen, N.J., covering construction at the ARC Tunnel. Work on the project has been stopped by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
By
updated 10/21/2010 4:48:13 PM ET 2010-10-21T20:48:13

New Jersey's governor wants to kill a $9 billion-plus train tunnel to New York City because of runaway costs. Six thousand miles away, Hawaii's outgoing governor is having second thoughts about a proposed $5.5 billion rail line in Honolulu.

In many of the 48 states in between, infrastructure projects are languishing on the drawing board, awaiting the right mix of creative financing, political arm-twisting and timing to move forward. And a struggling economy and a surge of political candidates opposed to big spending could make it a long wait.

Has the nation that built the Hoover Dam, brought electricity to the rural South and engineered the interstate highway system lost its appetite for big public works projects? At a time when other countries are pouring money into steel and concrete, is the U.S. unwilling to think long-term?

    1. Hoffman withdrew $1,200 hours before death: sources

      Philip Seymour Hoffman withdrew a total of $1,200 from an ATM at a supermarket near his New York City apartment the night before he was found lifeless in his bathroom with a syringe still in his left arm, sources told NBC News.

    2. NYC mayor will skip St. Pat's parade over gay ban
    3. Indiana man back home 18 years after abduction
    4. 32 states in the path of another wild storm
    5. Judge vows quick ruling on Va. marriage ban

"My sense is things have changed," said Andrew Goetz, a University of Denver professor and an expert on transportation policy. "People now tend to see any project as a waste of money, and that's just wrong."

"I call it the Bridge to Nowhere syndrome," he added. "High-profile projects get publicized and they become a symbol for any infrastructure project that's out there, and even the ones that are justified get tarnished by the same charge."

Story: Hoover Dam bypass bridge finally opens

The so-called Bridge to Nowhere would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to connect one Alaskan town to an island of 50 residents. It figured in the 2008 presidential election when then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was criticized for initially backing the plan, which was eventually scrapped.

The other cautionary tale of the past few years is Boston's Big Dig, the highway and tunnel project that was originally envisioned at less than $3 billion and wound up costing nearly $15 billion.

The Big Dig has made it easier for motorists to get to and from Boston's airport, and it eliminated a noisy and unsightly elevated highway that cast a shadow over some of the city's neighborhoods. But construction was plagued by years of delays, corruption and shoddy workmanship that resulted in the death of a motorist in a ceiling collapse.

A report this month by the Treasury Department and the Council of Economic Advisers paints a picture of a country dissatisfied with the state of America's aging infrastructure and in favor of improvements, but not necessarily eager to commit the dollars to fix it.

Standing in New York's Penn Station on Thursday in front of a sign touting the proposed tunnel, commuter Bill Mischell of Plainsboro, N.J., gave voice to those conclusions.

"You could make the argument that it will make New Jersey a better place to live, but you also have to weigh it impartially against the huge cost," Mischell said. "The state's in pretty significant financial trouble, and the money's got to come from somewhere."

Infrastructure spending in the U.S. stands at 2 percent of the country's gross domestic product— half what it was in 1960 — compared with approximately 9 percent in China and 5 percent for Europe, according to the report.

  1. Most popular

"During recessions it is common for state and local governments to cut back on capital projects — such as building schools, roads and parks — in order to meet balanced budget requirements," the report concluded. "However, the need for improved and expanded infrastructure is just as great during a downturn as it is during a boom."

The American Society of Civil Engineers calculates that the U.S. would need to spend an additional $1.1 trillion over the next five years to restore roads, bridges, dams, levees and other infrastructure to good condition. In its latest report card, the engineering society gave the nation's public works a "D" grade.

"Somehow we believe if we ignore it, it will go away," said Blaine Leonard, the society's president. "And it won't. We have to stop hitting the snooze button on this problem."

He said now is a good time to spend money on infrastructure because construction companies in this weak economy are hungry for work and the costs are relatively low as a result.

Story: Marvels in engineering

Major infrastructure projects of the past benefited from strong leadership, notably the interstate highway system pushed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s, he said. Today, though, "there isn't any high-level leadership about infrastructure," so there's no agreement about priorities, Leonard said.

To be sure, there are large-scale projects under way, notably in California, where a combination of federal dollars and voter-approved bonds and local tax increases are funding improvements, from highway widening to the $6.5 billion renovation of the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. And this week, Arizona and Nevada hailed the opening of a $240 million bridge that bypasses Hoover Dam.

However, many projects recently completed or in the pipeline secured funding before the economy went into a slide. Some of them might not be approved today.

  1. Only on NBCNews.com
    1. OWN via Getty Images
      From belief to betrayal: How America fell for Armstrong
    2. pool via Reuters file
      US to Syria neighbors: Be ready to act on WMDs
    3. China: One-child policy is here to stay
    4. NRA: Practice Range
      New 'Practice Range' shooter game says it’s from NRA
    5. 'Gifted' priest indicted in crystal meth case
    6. AFP - Getty Images
      China's state media admits to air pollution crisis
    7. AFP - Getty Images
      French to send 1,000 more troops to Mali

In New Jersey, construction on a rail tunnel connecting New Jersey and New York City — the largest transportation project under way in the U.S. — began in 2009 under then-Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat. It is projected to double train capacity at peak times as well as provide 6,000 construction jobs immediately and up to 40,000 jobs after its completion in 2018. About $6 billion of the cost is being covered by the federal government and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Earlier this month, Republican Gov. Chris Christie announced he was pulling the plug because the cost had escalated from $5 billion in 2005 to more than $9 billion by the federal government's estimate, and as much as $14 billion by Christie's reckoning.

"I simply cannot put the taxpayers of the state of New Jersey on what would be a never-ending hook," he said.

Christie later agreed to reconsider. The two-week review period expires Friday.

In Hawaii, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle announced recently that she wouldn't sign off on a federally subsidized rail line until an updated economic study is conducted. And that may not be completed before she leaves office in less than two months. That means the project's fate could be in her successor's hands.

In Seattle, new Mayor Mike McGinn is threatening to hold up construction of a massive highway tunnel to replace the waterfront's dilapidated, earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct because he fears city taxpayers will be on the hook if costs spiral beyond the $4.2 billion price tag.

"The issue of the overall cost of the tunnel has been a concern to voters since before the recession, and I think the severity of the state's and the city's fiscal situation is causing people to take a harder look at ... an expensive and risky project," McGinn said.

In Wisconsin, Ohio and California, Republican candidates for governor have vowed they won't endorse high-speed rail projects, despite the promise of billions of dollars from Washington.

  1. Most popular

Other countries are spending heavily on job-creating infrastructure. Projects include Algeria's $11.2 billion east-west highway; a planned $10 billion bridge linking the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra; and China's $60 billion Yangtze River diversion project.

Australia plans to spend $38 billion to relieve traffic congestion in Melbourne, while Britain is preparing for a $45 billion high-speed rail link between London and the West Midlands. Japan is building a $70 billion highway from Tokyo to Osaka, scheduled for completion in 2020.

In the U.S., it often takes a catastrophe to give infrastructure improvements more urgency. The Minneapolis bridge collapse in 2007 that killed 13 people prompted reviews of aging bridges around the country.

"Unfortunately, our attention span is short," Leonard said. "You would think the Minneapolis bridge collapse would have sent repercussions throughout the system that would have resulted in a transportation funding bill, but it didn't. Even bridge funding bills didn't get through Congress."

Washington infrastructure consultant Norman Anderson said the federal government's recent emphasis on smaller, "shovel-ready" projects to stimulate the economy is misguided and shows a lack of vision.

"You don't do 'shovel-ready.' That is idiotic and extremely uninformed," he said in an e-mail. "You do projects now because they produce value for an economy 20 to 30 years into the future, as well as producing immediate jobs."

___

Rubinkam reported from Allentown, Pa. AP Business Writer Elaine Kurtenbach in Shanghai contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: Engineering marvels

  • Julie Jacobson  /  AP
    Hoover Dam is framed in the newly completed by-pass bridge spanning the Colorado River.

    For most people, the new Hoover Dam bypass bridge, which opened to traffic today, will provide a convenient link between Nevada and Arizona. For Blaine Leonard, it could also help close the cognitive gap in the way people think about large-scale engineering projects in general.

    On the one hand, says the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), “People have an inherent curiosity about how things work and how they’re built. They want to know what makes them tick.”

    At the same time, he adds, people have a tendency to take infrastructure in general for granted: “Infrastructure is what makes our lives possible; it’s what makes travel possible.”

    With that in mind, here are nine new or soon-to-debut engineering and infrastructure projects that are worth a visit.

  • Beacon Hill Station and Tunnels

    Image: Beacon Hill Light Rail Station
    Sound Transit

    From the street, Seattle’s Beacon Hill Light Rail Station is little more than a boxy brick building fronted by four elevators. Step inside, though, and you quickly descend 160 feet to the underground station and the massive tunnels of the 16-mile Link Light Rail Line between SeaTac Airport and downtown. The station is filled with public art — internally lit sculptures loom overhead like microbes made large — while the tunnels themselves offer a testament to engineering technology. “It was a massive project that is, in some places, hidden beneath our feet,” says Leonard. “That makes it intriguing.” It also made the project a 2010 ASCE Award of Merit winner.

  • Concordia University Wisconsin

    Image: Concordia University Lakeshore
    Ken Cobb - JJR, LLC

    Sometimes the best engineering work is meant to go unseen. That’s the idea behind the Lakeshore Environmental Enhancement and Education Project at Concordia University in Mequon, Wis. The campus, which sits on 130-foot-high bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, was literally washing away — 20,000 tons of sediment per year — until it undertook a massive stabilization program involving 100,000 tons of rock, stone and vegetation. Today, visitors can experience a man-made, yet seemingly natural environment, visit a one-month-old environmental learning center and get a sense of why the site also received an ASCE Award of Merit this year.

  • CityCenter

    Image: Aria Hotel and Casino
    Laura Rauch  /  AP

    Now approaching its one-year anniversary, this 66-acre complex on the Las Vegas Strip still stands as the largest privately funded development project in U.S. history. And, perhaps, its most controversial. Design-wise, it’s a stunner, its expanses of curved glass and angled metal standing in marked, modernist contrast to the ersatz palazzos and theme-park motifs of its neighbors. Financially speaking, it’s been less successful: Conceived before the recession, it cost $8.7 billion to build, but was recently written down to $2.8 billion. A bum deal for shareholders, it’s a winning hand for visitors who can get a hotel room for as little as $109 per night.

  • Talking Water Gardens

    Image: Talking Water Gardens
    Heather Slocum

    Wastewater treatment isn’t glamorous, but according to Mike Wolski, it can be a beautiful thing. As assistant public works director for the city of Albany, Ore., Wolski is part of a public-private partnership that’s turning a crumbling industrial site into a 50-acre wetland that will cool treated wastewater in a setting marked by waterfalls, wildflowers and hiking trails. With construction set to be finished in December, the site will remain closed for another 12–18 months to foster revegetation and the return of wildlife. “There’s already a bald eagle out there, checking it out,” says Wolski.

  • High Line

    Image: New York City Approaches Record-High Temperatures
    Spencer Platt  /  Getty Images

    This elevated greenway in New York’s Meatpacking District wasn’t engineered so much as re-engineered. Originally built in the 1930s to get freight trains off city streets, it became a weed-choked eyesore after the trains stopped running in 1980. But instead of demolishing it, the city turned into it a long, skinny park, complete with native plantings, water features and open seating areas. The first half-mile section debuted in 2009 with a northern extension expected to open next year. Says Leonard, “They took a feature that had become a detraction and they’ve turned it into something that benefits the neighborhood.”

  • Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre

    Image: Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas
    Iwan Baan  /  AT&T Performing Arts Center

    Part of Dallas’ AT&T Performing Arts Center, the Wyly Theatre is the art world’s answer to Transformers: It can be quickly converted into a variety of configurations, based on the nature of each performance, through the use of a mechanical “superfly” system. The 600-seat venue, which was designed by Joshua Prince-Ramus and Rem Koolhaas, features a unique “stacked” design that positions support spaces above and below the hall, rather than around it. The result? A 12-level, glass-walled “theater machine” that’s a powerful dramatic presentation all by itself.

  • New River Gorge Bridge

    Image:
    Rick Barbero  /  The Register-Herald via AP

    Located outside Fayetteville, W.Va., the largest single-span steel-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere is hardly new — it was completed in 1977 — but it now offers visitors a novel way to experience its impressive engineering: BridgeWalk, a guided walking tour along an inspection catwalk 850 feet above the river below. The tours ($69 per person) entail clipping into a safety cable and traversing a 24-inch catwalk underneath the bridge deck, all while enjoying panoramic views and bridge-design insights. “We’ve had kids, we’ve had retirees, we’ve had engineers,” says managing owner Benjy Simpson. “They get a chance to appreciate what this bridge is all about.”

  • Golden Gate Bridge/Doyle Drive

    Image: Golden Gate Bridge
    John G. Mabanglo  /  AFP

    Approaching its 75th anniversary (in 2012), the Golden Gate Bridge is truly an iconic structure; approaching the structure itself, however, can be an automotive nightmare. That should change with the projected 2014 completion of the Presidio Parkway. Replacing the seismically unstable Doyle Drive (Route 101) with a new parkway/tunnel system, the change will not only enhance traffic safety but also remove a longtime barrier between to two other San Francisco attractions: the Presidio and Crissy Field. “Making the connection between Crissy Field and the Presidio,” says David Shaw of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, “will help people visit both and better appreciate them as national parklands.”

  • World Trade Center

    Image: World Trade Center 7 building
    John Makely  /  msnbc.com

    When it comes to iconic infrastructure, no project carries more significance than the 16-acre site where the new World Trade Center is now taking shape. When completed (in 2015), the complex will include four glass towers, including the nation’s tallest building (1,776 feet); a museum dedicated to 9/11, and a transit center designed by Santiago Calatrava. In the meantime, a pair of memorial pools marking the footprints of the original Twin Towers is scheduled to open by September 11, 2011. “People want to go there, not just to see the site,” says Leonard, “but also to see how you build something while retaining the historic value and the sanctity of what happened there.”

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments