This past weekend, the NYT reported that bids had come in to replace the aging Willis Avenue Bridge, which spans 304 ft between Manhattan and the Bronx. It was built in three years and nine months, completed in 1901 at the cost of $2.5 mil. Adjusted for CPI, this is $59 mil in 2005 dollars.

By comparison, the Brooklyn Bridge spans 1600 ft, cost $15 mil to build in 1883 or $300 mil in 2005 dollars. Today, 106 years later, with the advent of modern technology, we can replace the puny Willis bridge in an estimated five years at $600 mil, assuming no cost or time over-runs, based on bid submissions.

If we oversimplify things by assuming material and all labor costs have increased with CPI - giving no credit to a century of progress in building technology and advancements in material extraction and fabrication, then, $600 - $59 = $541 mil is the burden created by the choices we have made as a society in adopting regulations, studies, legal requirements, constituency approvals, bureaucratic overhead, etc.

It seems remarkable that these costs should be almost 10 times that of purchasing the skilled and unskilled man hours and the materials to fabricate the bridge, and that we should take 33% more time to get the job done. And these are best-case figures assuming no overruns.

The moral of the fable seems clear — by embracing a model which allows many different constituents to have a say in investment into public infrastructure, New York City and possibly the rest of the country have greatly retarded its ability to create and renew physical infrastructure. This is very clear in NYC where we contend with decrepit and aging infrastructure while cities in Asia maintain constant renewal of public works.

In a previously disastrous experiment, liberals thought they could achieve affordable housing at no cost by legislating rent control, only to watch landlords allow buildings to fall into neglect from lack of economic incentive. Perhaps a similarly misguided belief today that we can save the trees, the fish, and the environment at no cost by legislating all projects to obtain numerous constituent approvals will have similar consequences - leaving us with a stock of aging infrastructure by excessively raising the costs of getting them replaced. 

Stefan Jovanovich writes:

I reviewed the Census Bureau's calculations of the changes over the time periods 2000 to 2006, in the number of people who report themselves as non-immigrant residents in a metropolitan area. To my amateur view it is a change in the demographic patterns from the "white flight" of the last decades of the 20th century. The "flight" now is by all groups of "native" Americans. San Francisco, for example, has seen its black population drop from nearly 20% 2 decades ago to 8%. Riverside, which has been one of the fastest growing exurban counties in Southern California over the same period, has seen much of its growth come from African-American emigrants from Compton and Watts.

Bridge addendum from Yishen Kuik:

Vietnam $42mm Thuan Phuoc Bridge is a cable-stayed bridge that crosses the lower Han River at Da Nang, Vietnam. The four-lane bridge, completed in 2005 has a main span is
405 meters. The four-lane bridge is 1.85 km long and
18 meters wide.

Sweden & Norway $185mm The 704m Svinesund Bridge is a compression arch suspended-deck bridge crossing Ide fjord at Svinesund, and joining Sweden and Norway. 4 lanes, longest span 247 m (810 ft).

China $700mm The Runyang Bridge is a large bridge complex that crosses the Yangtze River. It is part of the Beijing-Shanghai Expressway. South bridge main span of 1,490 metres (4,888 ft). Upon its completion in 2005 it became the third largest suspension bridge in the world and the largest in China. The width of the deck is 39.2 metres (129 ft), accommodating 6 traffic lanes and a narrow walkway at each outside edge for maintenance.

Slovakia $172mm The 854 m Apollo Bridge spans the Danube at 231 m. The Apollo Bridge became the only European project named one of five finalists for the 2006 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award (OPAL Award) by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Scotland $40mm The Clyde Arc is a road bridge spanning the River Clyde. Dual two-lane carriageway, two cycle/footpaths (total width 140 m) in west central Scotland, 96m span.

Thailand $70mm The Second ThaiLao Friendship Bridge over the Mekong connects Mukdahan Province in Thailand with Savannakhet in Laos. The Friendship Bridge is 1600 meters long and 12 meters wide, with two traffic lanes.

If anyone can explain what exactly is in the 90m span Willis Bridge that makes it good value at $600mm+, I would be all ears. At that price, I would expect the bridge attendants to serve us coffee as we approach the ramparts.





Speak your mind

4 Comments so far

  1. Gregg Rainone on April 2, 2007 9:19 pm

    Ya, except for one thing: A CONTRIBUTOR to today’s higher infrastructure costs is the fact that economic standards are pretty dramatically different in 2007 than 1901. People routinely DIED building the Brooklyn Bridge, they developed repiratory ailments in the footing holes, and nobody had much in the way of workman’s compensation insurance, pension benefits, paid leave, safety goggles, or anything else in the way of modern standard of living/working allowances. They also probably worked 16 hours per day…on the light days.

    We might be able to build the Willis Ave. Bridge today for $59 million…using slave labor, but since the post-1901 advent of CENTRAL BANK currency INFLATION, I’m not sure the materials prices could be kept at the 1901 levels in the current commodity bull phase.

    Best bet is probably to line up the slaves now, and market-time for a commodity/metals bust to start the project. Then it can be brought in under budget. And if the slaves dare to riot or protest, just call in the Pinkerton Men with shotguns and clubs to “talk” some sense into ‘em.

    You know, Joe Dimaggio used to play within sight of the Willis Ave. Bridge for $100,000 a year, too…what would they have to pay him today?

    Then only thing constant in life is changing values, and changing RELATIVE values.

  2. Chris Stenson on April 3, 2007 9:51 pm

    This post is so off mark that it is not even funny. Some of the flaws in this post are already well illustrated by Mr. Rainone. Other points of consideration included in bridge design are:

    - Traffic mobilization. It is one thing to build a bridge in a thinly populated area, but it is a whole different story to build a long-span bridge in New York city in the year 2007. It takes complex coordination of traffic control, construction scheduling and management.

    - Nowadays bridges are designed following strict structural codes, advanced computer modeling and in some instances wind tunnel and seismic tests. Such measures have the intent of assuring the safety of pedestrian and drivers. Also structural loads account for future loads such as heavier and more advanced trucks, ship impact, earthquakes and terrorist attacks. After the Sept 11th attacks all major structures in the US are undergoing a retrofit program to ensure the possibility of future terrorist acts. These variables were not present in 1907 and since then bridge design have come a long way in terms of technological advancements. Any wonder as to why we don’t have more bridge accidents such as the Tacoma Narrow Bridge? The advent of stiffening trusses in suspension bridges did not come by accident ! This all comes at a cost.

    - New alignments. Long span bridges require complex alignments that may affect miles of roadway. It costs money to compensate businesses and other individuals affected by the new realignment. They must be compensated. Perhaps an easy thing to do back in 1907, but it will not come at the same cost in 2007 especially in NY city.

    - Reallocation of utilities. New construction in most part requires the reallocation of underground utilities. How many fiber optic cables, and other utilities were underground back in 1907 compared to 2007? What about sewage pipes, electrical wires, wate pipes, etc, etc, etc.

    The list goes on and on, but this should be sufficient to clarify the misguided post.

    Chris Stenson
    Brigde Engineer

  3. Chris Stenson on April 5, 2007 9:06 pm

    This is like comparing apples with oranges.

    Such simple comparisons do not take into account site conditions, difficulties of construction, mobilization of traffic, relocation of utilities, loading conditions on the structure, seismic zones, ship traffic, soil conditions for foundations and overall structure, bridge alignment, and type of structure.

    Each construction site presents different challenges and conditions!

    By the way, the Willis Avenue Bridge has a 92-m main span which is a swing span. However when you include the back spans the total length of the structure is 979-m and not 92-m.

    Also understand that swing bridges are costly due to mechanical devices that must be placed in the structure. The design of swing bridges also require very accurate design and construction effort in other to balance the dead load on the swing span.

    A quick search on Wikipedia also shows that there are issues on the logistics to remove the old structure. One cannot just blow the old bridge and dump it in the water due to existing ship traffic, environmental and safety regulations. In essence, it will take a tremendous effort to dismantle the old structure.

  4. Hunter Smith on March 19, 2008 7:34 am

    When you mentioned above:
    “Vietnam $42mm Thuan Phuoc Bridge is a cable-stayed bridge that crosses the lower Han River at Da Nang, Vietnam. The four-lane bridge, completed in 2005 has a main span is 405 meters. The four-lane bridge is 1.85 km long and
    18 meters wide.”

    I think you discussing the Son Hang bridge. We live around the corner from the Thuan Phuoc Bridge and it is not complete even yet! For info about it see http://www.abes-indochina.com/images/portfolio/bridges/thuan_phuoc/thuan_phuoc_vn_eng.pdf

    perhaps the posting could be updated here and on wikipedia

    my son is doing a project on the Thuan Phuoc Bridge and would appreciate any additional info that you could provide or direct us to …



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