Examples of Why Government Infrastructure Projects Are So Hard To Get Done

As most of you know, my company operates public recreation facilities for a variety of public agencies under concession contracts.  These contracts are mostly similar to each other in their structure, but one key difference among them is the contract length -- we have both short-term contracts of say 5 years and long-term contracts up to 30 years.  When we have longer-term contracts, we are expected to do all the maintenance, even capital maintenance such as repaving roads and replacing roofs (more on that approach here).  The US Forest Service tends to prefer much shorter contracts where they retain responsibility for capital maintenance -- this tends to work out as we pay a higher concession fee on these (since we have fewer expenses) and the Forest Service has a process to use the concession fee to perform capital maintenance.  In fact, generally the FS asks us to do the maintenance because it is way easier for us to get it started (avoids the government contracting processes) and then we get credit for our costs against the fees we owe.

Anyway, I have a fair amount of experience with performing small to medium-sized infrastructure projects on public lands.  Here are a few examples, starting from the sublime and proceeding to the ridiculous, of projects we have not been able to proceed with and why.  In all these examples, my company was going to fund the project so availability of funds was not an issue.

  • In TN, we had already begun an expansion to add more campsites to an existing campground, a project already approved by our government landlord.  A disgruntled ex-employee, on his way out, claimed we had disturbed a rock pile and he thought the rock pile was some sort of Native American artifact.  Despite the fact there was no evidence for this, and that the construction was no where near the rock pile, construction was halted and my contractor had to go home while an investigation was begun.  As we speak, scores of acres surrounding the campground have been put off-limits to development until the rock pile is thoroughly studied, but of course no funding currently exists to study the rock pile so it is not clear how long this will take.  I am proceeding internally on the assumption that we will never be given permission and am cutting losses on materials bought for the project.
  • In AZ, we operated a snow play area in what was essentially a gravel pit.  The slopes we used were what was left from years of mining gravel, and essentially the whole area had been disturbed.  We wanted to add a real bathroom to replace scores of portable toilets and to bring power to the area rather than use generators.  All the work would be performed on already disturbed land in the gravel pit.  We were told we could not proceed without a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) study to assess environmental impacts of the work, which could easily take years or longer if its results got tied up in the courts, as they often do.  Since the government had no money or manpower to do the NEPA study, it was pointless to even try to proceed.  This year, without the ability to construct necessary facilities for visitors, we exited the concession contract and the Forest Service has not be successful yet in finding anyone else to reopen it.
  • In CA, just this week, I was discussing two maintenance projects with the government in a series of campgrounds we run near the Owens Valley.  In one, we wanted to dig up a water line that runs under a dirt road to repair a leak.  In the second, we desperately needed to replace some leaky roofs on bathrooms.  Both projects are now delayed.  In the case of the water line, digging up the road was going to require an archaeological study - yes, any digging basically requires such a study, and there is no exception for utterly absurd situations like this.  We eventually decided to open the campground without water this year, to the detriment of campers.  In the other case, the replacement of roofs on some old 1950's campground pit toilet buildings (think bathrooms at a highway rest area but not as nice) have to first be evaluated to make sure they are not historic buildings that should be protected.  Since this is a safety issue, I used up my favors on this one to try to get it to proceed.  In my experience, once a building in a park or campground has been labelled historic, that is pretty much its death sentence.  It becomes impossible to do any work on them and they simply fall apart.  For example, years ago there were some really neat old travel cabins in Slide Rock State Park in AZ.  I tried to get permission to fix them up and reopen them, but was told they were historic and they had to wait for special permissions and procedures and materials.  Today, the cabins are basically kindling, having fallen apart completely.

Recognize that these are projects entirely without NIMBY, funding, permitting, licensing, or procurement issues.  But they still face barriers from government rules.

  • The_Big_W

    We are nearly within reach of "Optimal Regulation", where the bureaucracy has just enough regulations to make doing anything impossible...

  • johnmoore

    Yep - we are dying of regulatory excess. And it continues to get worse.

  • 这个不错哦,我好好读读!

  • SamWah

    But mainly, stupidity...of the rules, by the rules, for the rules.

  • Screen Man

    The reason govt. infrastructure jobs are so hard to get done is because, well, government.

  • irandom419

    For the road problem, can you force a smaller line through it and maybe put a pressure tank to help compensate? Or even the potable water rehab companies.

    https://www.wateronline.com/doc/insituform-expands-rehabilitation-capabilitie-0001

  • frankania

    You are right, just fix it that way, and do NOT tell the bureaucrats. cheap fix

  • me

    Classic economics - if I get to make decisions that are free to me and can sound like a good idea to my management chain or constituents and you will bear all the costs, negative externalities ensue.

    Recent example a coworker of a friend ran into: he's on probation for an entirely ridiculous issue, which is a separate and pretty ugly story as administrative overbearance goes. He's a poor fellow (literal paycheck to paycheck situation). He's been told that he should go through a mental health evaluation. No big deal you'd figure, but it turns out that while the state will ordain that these things need to happen and heavily penalize individuals if they don't, they of course won't bear the costs. Result: some psychological consultant will be $600 richer, this guy will have to talk with his landlord about paying rent late and a social worker goes home happily having covered their ass by doing something that sounds good on paper.

  • cc

    I have some experience with NEPA etc. The origins of the NEPA process are huge government projects that might really have an impact on something, like dredging a river or putting in a dam. But the law as written does not have a de minimus clause to exclude small or silly stuff like digging up a road to put a pipe. For a $50million project, the NEPA costs are relatively small. For a tiny project, they are prohibitive.
    There is also a tendency as society gets safer and richer to become more risk averse. When the only way to make a living was farming/mining etc that was inherently risky, you just factored the risk in. In the 1800s paddle-wheel steam boats regularly had their boilers blow up, killing dozens or even everyone on board, but compared to spending months getting somewhere it was worth it. But since life is so safe now, many risks seem unreasonable, especially to urban pampered people who have never built a house or cut down a tree (or been kicked by a horse). So risk aversion is growing. On top of this, the big incentive for gov employees is to not make waves. Nothing gets done? Invisible. One person protests? Big trouble. Saying that an old gravel pit needs a NEPA analysis is simply CYA behavior--nothing in the law requires it.
    There has been for 30 years almost complete paralysis at the Forest Service. They make a plan to cut timber etc and then get sued because they did not do a NEPA analysis of each acre even though this is not required--and they are either tied up in court or lose. Even when they win (which is often) it delays projects for 2 years and makes them increasingly risk averse. I saw one forest where a single lady filed a suit everytime they planned a timber sale, claiming there might be goshawks there, even though the FS had done surveys. Almost completely shut them down there.

  • Richard Harrington

    I think it is because we're a "sniper" culture - anybody can stop any project with a minor complaint. The end result is stasis and death.

  • Dustin Barnard

    This is the kind of stuff I worry about the most. All the noise coming from Republicans tends to be about lowering taxes. But fiddling with tax rates is not going to get us very far. I think we've gotten to the point where we're literally choking on regulations of little to no value. The problem exists at every level as well (local/state/federal). While some areas are obviously worse than others, the problem is clearly pervasive across the country, so I have no idea what we can do about it. It appears to be the natural progression of things.

  • AudreyA

    Yes, we all love Cultural Resources permits! Washington state jumped on that bandwagon (extending it to state funded projects) and finally started a streamlined process, but it's been a nightmare. You know, take a 1200 project and add another 1200 for an archeological report saying there is nothing there. We are lucky where I work that we have access to a relatively inexpensive archeologist who can complete a simple review for about 600 but the whole process is absurd beyond belief. Check out Camile Paglia's recent interview in the Weekly standard where she talks about government regulation. Anyway, DO NOT STOP blogging. Bear in mind that a lot of us read your blogs but don't take the time to comment.

  • Bob Long

    Pournell's Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

    "In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely."

    Gary North’s first law of bureaucracy:
    “Some bureaucrat will enforce eventually the letter of the law to the
    point of absurdity.”

    Read more at http://teapartyeconomist.com/2012/06/29/bureaucrats-are-dumb-but-some-are-dumber-than-others/

  • CapitalistRoader

    Just like more and stricter criminal laws benefit justice system employees, regulatory agency employees' job security is enhanced with new regulations. And the more conflicting and confusing the regulations, the better. More hours = more employees = more chances for advancement. The only caveat is funding but up until now that was taken care of by regular and generous campaign contributions to the appropriate politicians. From a recent Mother Jones article:

    President Donald Trump promised during the campaign to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form.”
    That probably isn’t going to happen, but if recent reports are correct, the White House is planning massive cuts to the agency, potentially wiping out up to a quarter of its $8.1 billion budget and eliminating as many as 3,000 jobs.

    It all about Deep State jobs. And Trump probably won't be very successful in reducing regulations but it's fun watching the Deep State squirm.

  • ErikTheRed

    Of course. This is because regulations are the source of money and power for politicians, regardless of party. Republicans won't do anything to reign in their party other than whining about it on the Internet, so it's not shock that their party continues to exploit the situation.

  • DirtyJobsGuy

    In Vermont a few years ago a major north south state highway was washed out from heavy hurricane caused rains. Many small towns were cut out. The Democratic Governor, realizing he needed to repair the road fast declared an emergency that waived environmental reviews and other procurement regulations. He later commented he was amazed at now fast the repairs were done and how inexpensively. But that did not encourage him to buck the Legal/Green industrial complex and change the law. I was pleased to see that US government is now changing policies that award legal penalty money to favored non-profit social activist groups. If the EPA can change the money hose to the Sierra Club things may change faster than we think. All these environmental groups are just disguised versions of slip and fall ambulance chasers.

  • Justin

    Awesome observations. Glad that you are coming back strong. Just wanted to say that reading your blog gives me hope. Also, you are in a very unique position to point out some of the absurdities of the system.

  • I suspect if many more people understood how many criminal justice programs (including ankle bracelets, alcohol education programs, probation itself) are actually unfunded mandates, some serious changes might happen.

    Even beyond criminal justice: Many years ago, I was diagnosed with and treated for depression. After a decade of being depression-free, I applied for a District of Columbia driver's license. I was told that since I had been -- no matter how long before, and no matter how successfully -- diagnosed and/or treated for depression, I needed a medical evaluation to get the license. And another one by my birthday, the second calendar year afterwards. And another one with each renewal.

    And no, the DC DMV had no one on staff who could do it, and no program for defraying applicants' costs.

    Luckily, I was able to find a psychologist willing to do it and willing to accept insurance. (By the way, since then she joined many other therapists in refusing insurance.)