Difficult To Reconcile Democracy And the Speedy Execution Of Major Public Projects – The Case Of the Light Rail Connecting Washington DC And Its Airport: It Took 30 Years To Reach An Agreement On How To Do It

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By Paolo von Schirach

June 11, 2012

WASHINGTON – Think of it: it has taken 30 years to agree on the way to link Washington, the Capital of the United States, with Dulles, (its International Airport), with a mass transit system. Why so long? Because of lack of policy clarity, multiple jurisdictions, funding issues, various interests fighting one another, conflicts between Federal, State and Local powers and a lot more. You would think that we could do better in the Capital of the United States. Not so. (more on this later).

Democracy and big projects

It is now clear that democracy, with all its checks and balances, vetting, appeals and reconsideration of decisions already taken, does not go well with the conception, management and speedy execution of large public projects. Oddly enough in America, a modern democracy guided by (competent?) people who supposedly know a lot about efficiency and cost-effectiveness it takes forever to get any major public project done. And this hurts the public interest, not to mention business and economic competitiveness.

How things are (not) done in India

In dysfunctional democracies, like India, it is a lot worse. In India it is almost impossible to conceive and execute complex, multi-year projects that overlap various jurisdictions, simply because the fractious politics are never fully aligned and the policy confusion, nicely mixed with administrative incompetence, almost guarantee gridlock and inability to progress. And this is why India is so far behind in the modernization of its antiquated infrastructure, something that all political and business leaders know to be harmful to economic growth.

Comical Italians

Then there are the comic book cases like the vaunted mega-project of the Bridge on the Messina Strait that would link the island of Sicily to the rest of Italy. Visiting the Italian Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo a couple of years ago, I was stunned to see, right at the entrance, a beautiful model of the Bridge. But nowhere could I find a notice clearly indicating that this engineering marvel was only a “project”. Discussed for years, yes, but only a project. Talk about selling smoke to the unaware Chinese visitors who believed in good faith that the bridge had been built. (Needless to say, given Italy’s finances, no way that the project will see the light any time soon).

Top-down China

At the opposite end of the spectrum there is China. In China major projects are ordered from the top and they are faithfully executed. There is no bargaining. There are no hearings, appeals or special votes. There are no NGOs organizing against this or that. (Well, this may be changing a bit now). As a result, China has managed to invest massively in public projects, this way modernizing its infrastructure in record time. Of course, the people who are ultimately the beneficiaries also paid the price. Nobody gets to choose or propose alternatives. And those who are in the way of a project are forcibly relocated, with nominal compensation for their losses. So things get done and fast; but the people have no say.

Complicated America

In supposedly modern and efficient America the picture is grim. Take for instance the national electric grid. It is very antiquated and extremely inefficient. You would think that America would have a good system to move electric power from state to state in order to maximize utilization depending on demand. Well no. In fact it is almost impossible to receive the authority to build new power lines, given the many jurisdictions and agencies involved.

For this reason it makes no sense to develop wind farms in the Mid-West where there is a lot of wind but not a lot of people and bring the power to the highly populated East Coast that could use the extra juice. The cost and time necessary to get to the agreements necessary to be able to build the power lines makes these projects totally impractical.

The metro to Dulles Airport, a never ending project

Closer to home, if you do not live in the Washington, DC area, probably you do not know that Dulles Airport, the Region’s International Hub, does not have any mass transit system linking it to the city of Washington. That’s right: as of today, there is absolutely nothing resembling a modern and efficient way to get from the airport into the Capital of the United States of America. And why not? Because of reasons that make the US look perilously like to India. After Dulles took off as a reasonably sized airport in terms of passengers volumes in the 1980s, there was no agreement on what kind of system to build and –most importantly– how to pay for it, until just a few years ago. Now, after 30 years of deliberations and false starts, finally the system is under construction.

Dulles was built in 1962. It became a significant hub in the 1980s, with major expansions in the 1990s and beyond. But construction on the the metro-rail system that will eventually be linked to the existing metro network began only in 2009. And why so long? Well, even a cursory review of the time line associated with this project will tell you why. I started counting the “milestones” related to the various drafts, changes, amendments and funding decisions by the Congress, by the State of Virginia, (where Dulles is located), by the Counties involved and by the various authorities. After I reached 150 (over a period of 30 years) I stopped counting. Below is just one of the milestones, chosen randomly. This one conveys the extraordinaries difficulties involved in getting public acceptance.

July 2002

“Public hearings on Draft EIS and proposed General Plans are held in McLean, Reston and Ashburn. Hearing advertisements were published in local newspapers and the Washington Post. Press releases (in Spanish and English) are delivered to 63 media outlets. Meeting announcements designated for public service broadcasting are sent to 51 radio and television stations in the region. Announcements for posting on television “bulletin boards” are delivered to Loudoun, Fairfax, Reston, and Herndon. The project Web site, project information centers in Reston and Tysons and community libraries in Fairfax and Loudoun counties provide information on the hearings. A project newsletter announcing the public hearings is sent to approximately 11,000 people. 13,000 copies of the Notice of Public Hearings (the notice included more detailed project information) are distributed to state and local agencies and representatives of civic associations within the study area”.

Finally we have construction

And the list goes on and on, including Federal funding promised and then withheld by Congress, and agreements that seemed close and then vanished, who knows how many times. In the meantime, due to all these delays and complications, the cost estimate for building only a few miles of light rail in the most advanced industrial country on earth (or so we thought) kept going up and up.

We have to find a better system

Well, the good news is that the Dulles Metro project is underway and that it will be completed in a few more years. The bad news is that this is no way to run anything significant in the world’s largest industrial democracy. If this is the only way we can get major projects involving multiple jurisdictions done in America, then we really need to rethink democracy, governance and public policy. The system we created, a system that provides every possible tool to delay and derail, of course all in the name of participation and democratic controls, is hopeless.

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