Our complaints about road construction and the resultant delays are a summertime rite, as common as talking about the weather. Particularly galling are road closures when there appears to be little, if any work getting done. The pace of progress can be as glacial as traffic jams then often ensue.
Whether it’s slowing down as cars are funnelled into a single lane or time-consuming detours that drag on for months (see Elmira’s Church Street just now), we all have stories about the inconvenience. Likewise, we all have anecdotes about how the construction drags on while workers stand around and equipment sits idle for days on end.
The pace of progress – or the lack thereof – is a sore spot with just about every project.
That’s even more the case when we compare road work (government projects) to the pace of construction in private developments. Entire subdivisions – new roads, houses and all – appear to grow out of the ground even as repaving a small stretch of a road along our commute seems to drag on forever.
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Some of that is simply our impression: we pay far more attention to the projects that have an impact on us. And the comparison isn’t always apt. The reconstruction of a road – not just repaving, but a full dig and replacement of underground services – is more complicated than the so-called greenfield development in a new subdivision, creating more hurdles for municipal projects.
First off, there are residents to deal with, requiring input and feedback to begin with, and ongoing issues with noise and dust suppression, for instance, that don’t exist in new development. Then there are detours and efforts to keep some access points open. Add in the unknowns that almost always lead to unexpected delays or changes to the plan, and you’ve got a recipe for challenges beyond the typical new build, say officials.
Still, why not just hurry up the pace?
In general, there’s a trade-off between time, resources and money. More people and equipment working around the clock is very expensive. And it causes problems when the work is being done in close proximity to people’s homes.
Because the work is carried out by private contractors and typically awarded based on the lowest bid, there’s every chance the contractor is overextended, allocating scarce resources – there’s no budget for having large amounts of expensive equipment sitting idle waiting for the next site – may mean delays at any and all locations. Throw in similar issues with subcontractors, weather delays and the inevitable surprises, and you’ve got a recipe for construction taking a whole lot longer than seems reasonable to the untrained and often harried driver.
Studies have shown that when you factor in the cost of delays to drivers, the negative impact on residents and the business losses and failures – hello, transit projects – it’s often cheaper to go with the finish-fast option, despite the increase in upfront costs.
As the model stands just now, however, there’s no incentive to save time and money on the part of government or the contractors, bonuses for early completion notwithstanding. It’s increasingly common to see penalties for delays, but those are often explained away such that municipalities don’t apply them. Moreover, such costs are often built into the contracts, or simply tacked on as extras – almost invariably, the taxpayers pick up the tab, no matter who’s at fault.
Bureaucrats seeking to third-party all of the work and all of the potential blame if – well, let’s be real, when – there are screw-ups, delays and budget overruns also add to the cost and to the timelines. The status quo, which doesn’t usually work well for the public, doesn’t appear destined for change, and certainly not in any way that’s going to help you the next time you’re out in your car.