That is just one of several cogent and “damn right” points in this smartly-written Boston Globe piece from a couple of weeks ago: in this country today we just don’t seem to build infrastructure projects on time and on budget.
For example, on the Bayonne Bridge raising project construction has been set back for two full years.
I have long railed about how long it takes New York City to complete capital projects. I have snarkily mused that when someone in the government bureaucracy sneezes, intersection improvement projects are delayed six months. It’s sarcasm, but it captures an all-too-real phenomenon that has existed in city government for far too long. If the public knew how much time and energy we expend pushing and prodding these projects along each step of the way, cynicism and skepticism of their local government would grow exponentially.
And this is not a new phenomenon. This is decades in the making.
Speaking of bridges, a few months ago I mentioned how I was watching with wonder as the new Goethals Bridge rises, and how the Port Authority, never considered a bastion of efficiency, was building the bridge in less time than it takes NYC to effect a relatively straightforward intersection improvement project. That is a public-private partnership; draw your own conclusions.
Costs are crazy out-of-control as well. See an example here of the breakdown of the $9 million project to redo the fields at the Berry Houses.
If we can get by the high prices and the lack of production, we still face procurement, the third dreaded “p” we must endure and overcome.
The City’s procurement process continues to be a nightmare. Here’s a quick example: since arriving at Borough Hall in January 2014, we have placed an emphasis on increasing health & wellness across our borough. We have undertaken dozens of initiatives to encourage, educate and empower Staten Islanders to get healthier or stay fit. One simple idea we had was installing some outdoor gym equipment in a few of our public parks. We’re talking about basic equipment, like pull-up bars, that Islanders could incorporate into their fitness routines as they spend time in our wonderful Borough of Parks.
We allocated the funds in June 2014, during our first budget here at Borough Hall. How’s that equipment (forgive the pun) working out, you ask? Well, it’s not, because it hasn’t been installed yet.
The equipment for Bloomingdale Park was part of a bigger project and the bids came in “too high.” The Wolfe’s Pond equipment will be installed at the same time the hockey rink work is being done, meaning that construction will START in the fall of 2016. Bloomingdale is being re-bid this month, so I can’t give you a construction start date. Exactly when Staten Islanders will actually be using these physical fitness amenities is anyone’s guess.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the efforts by Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver to address Park’s historic capital and procurement problems. He has cut several months off the process, and knows that more needs to be done. But we are a long way from being efficient, or even relatively so.
I also appreciate the numerous meetings and the time DDC Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora has spent with us at Borough Hall. He is not the problem. The process, the dreaded status quo, the way we do things or don’t do things, is an entrenched, amorphous, hard to change enemy.
This is the problem. Things are done this way because that’s how it’s always been done by the same middle managers who were in charge during previous administrations. There is simply no motivation for anyone within the bureaucracy to do anything differently.
Maybe it is time to change the way we compensate some city workers to reward actions that speed projects up, to reward city employees who think out of the box and save the city money. Maybe we should incentivize the process to motivate employees would be motivated to get projects moving more quickly and done on time, instead of seeking to delay, delay, and delay some more. If incentives can inspire greater creativity and productivity, maybe we should give it a try.
Maybe culture is part of the problem. It comes as no surprise that New York City government is run like a bureaucracy, because it is one. Maybe we need to take some lessons from the tech startup culture, where innovation is paramount and the focus is on solving problems. As it is, there is simply no incentive for an employee to figure out an innovative way to cut down the time for a capital project.
We also need to tap into people with a fresh perspective, people with the expertise to offer concrete policy modifications. Let’s, for example, take the City's environmental review process, which is simultaneously overly-broad and under-inclusive, and ultimately compels no mitigation. It simply does nothing to help the environment and, except for the lawyers and consultants who are hired to navigate the maze, it kills jobs. Years ago, we pleaded with the Bloomberg Administration to review and implement some of the suggestions found in a white paper from Hope Cohen, then of the Manhattan institute, entitled “Rethinking Environmental Review: A Handbook on What Can Be Done.” Those requests fell on deaf ears.
The one thing we need immediately is a clarion call from the highest mountaintop of city government -- the Mayor -- that change must happen. Accountability, and thus substantive changes, will happen on a broader scale only if the Mayor forcefully compels the OMB Director and the Deputy Mayors to ride the commissioners, to demand from their agencies more efficiencies and a better way of running the city. If that press from the mayor is not forceful and consistent, the culture of stagnation wins, and those bureaucrats who were there before this Mayor will live on after him, doing the same things in the same tired and stale ways.
And nothing will get built on time, and that damn telephone pole still sits in the street bed at Victory Boulevard and Clove Road...