Sometimes small stories capture large truths. So it is with the fiasco that is the repair of the Anderson Memorial Bridge, connecting Boston and Harvard Square. Rehabilitation of the 232-foot bridge began in 2012, at an estimated cost of about $20 million; four years later, there is no end date in sight and the cost of the project is mushrooming, to $26.5 million at last count.
This glacial pace of implementation does not reflect the intrinsic technical difficulty of the task. For comparison, the Anderson Bridge itself was originally completed in just 11 months in 1912. General George Patton constructed nearly 40 times as much bridging in six months as American soldiers crossed the Rhine to win World War II. And even modern-day examples abound; for instance, in 2011, 14 bridges in Medford were fixed in just 10 weekends. In contrast, the lapses exposed by the Anderson Bridge project hold key lessons for America’s broader inability to solve its infrastructure problems.
Repairing the Anderson Memorial Bridge so slowly has had large direct costs. Approximately 21,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day, along with 15,000 bus riders and thousands of cyclists and pedestrians and riders of Harvard shuttle buses. All have been delayed by the repairs, many substantially. With missing sidewalks and bike lanes, cyclists and pedestrians are physically endangered as well. And then there are the backups on the roads that connect to the bridge. If we value time lost to congestion at $20 an hour and make no allowance for cyclists or delays on other arteries, the cost of delay so far has been $40 million, or almost 100 percent more than the budgeted cost of the repairs. Meanwhile, because of time lost from the Anderson delays, the structurally deficient Western Avenue and River Street bridges (originally scheduled for rehabilitation under the state’s same $3 billion Accelerated Bridge program) have missed their window for funding.
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.
To cap it off, after resisting for years the inclusion of pedestrian underpasses in bridge rehabilitation, MassDOT changed course in 2014 and agreed to revise the design so as not to preclude the construction of an underpass in the future. The contractor then had to move a major utility pipe so that an underpass could fit underneath; meanwhile, another 256 days of delay were added to the project. The entire project is now 22 months behind schedule.
Delay, then, is at one level the result of bureaucratic ineptitude and the promiscuous distribution of the power to hold things up. At another level, it is the failure of leadership to insist on reasonable accountability to meet reasonable deadlines. Perhaps, at a deeper level, it is the failure of citizenry to hold government accountable for reasonable performance — a failure that may in part reflect a lowering of expectations as trust in government declines. These themes, unfortunately, are not unique to the Anderson Bridge; they help illuminate why, despite our vast needs, the country has struggled to generate the necessary momentum to respond to pressing infrastructure demands.
There is no reason to think the Anderson Bridge experience is extraordinary, locally or nationally. For evidence, just look at the $255 million Longfellow Bridge repairs, recently delayed another two years due to historical complications, or the $82 million effort to replace deteriorated and corroded steel beams on the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, just pushed back one more year because of design errors. Massachusetts bridges are the oldest in the country, yet the Accelerated Bridge Program expires this year, with hundreds of structurally deficient bridges still remaining and future funding sources unclear.
America desperately needs a major increase in infrastructure investment and, if carried out effectively, an investment program could come close to paying for itself by generating an expanding economy. With record low interest rates, low material costs, and high construction unemployment, there is no better time. When states defer maintenance and repair for decades — as was done with the Anderson Bridge — it places a huge burden on future generations.
However, to collectively tackle the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, citizens need to believe that the government is up to the task. In an era when public trust in government remains near all-time lows, every public task is freighted with consequence. The relationship is cyclical — if government can start being more effective, it will win more trust, leading to more effectiveness. If, on the other hand, projects such as the Anderson Bridge repair project become the norm — then we are fated to increasing cynicism and distrust.
The Anderson Bridge is approximately one-sixth the length of the bridge Julius Caesar’s men built across the Rhine in 10 days in 55 BC. Caesar’s feat is admired not just for its technical mastery but also for its boldness. An allied tribe had offered boats to carry Caesar’s troops across the river, to avoid the difficult task of bridge-building. Yet Caesar rejected this offer, on the grounds that it would not be “fitting for the prestige of Rome.”
We should hold America’s infrastructure to the same standard.
Lawrence H. Summers is the Charles W. Eliot University Professor and president emeritus of Harvard University. He was also secretary of the US Treasury. Rachel Lipson is a joint MBA-MPP student at Harvard.