Let’s try building back faster
It’s an often-repeated tale, I admit, but I’m going to repeat it, again: the world’s largest low-rise office building, the Pentagon, was built in 16 months. Can you imagine a project even a tenth the size of the Pentagon being constructed that quickly today?
It’s true the 16-month period in question — from the September 11, 1941 groundbreaking to the January 15, 1943 completion date — didn’t include planning time. Can you guess how long the planning took?
Here’s the sequence of events. At a July 17, 1941 hearing on Capitol Hill, U.S Rep. Clifton Woodrum of Virginia pressed the Roosevelt administration to come up with an “overall solution” to the War Department’s longstanding office crunch. At the time, its employees were spread out over 17 separate buildings in the nation’s capital.
Keep in mind that by this point in World War II, the United States had not officially entered the conflict. But America was already a major supplier of materiel to both Britain and the Soviet Union, and was imposing stiff economic sanctions on Japan in response to its invasion of, and atrocities within, the vast expanse of China. U.S. officials knew full well (even if the general public did not) that the country might soon be drawn into war. Among their concerns was the readiness of the War Department to manage any rapid and massive mobilization that might be required.
Within days of the July 17 hearing, then, the department responded with a plan to build a new headquarters just over the Potomac River at Arlington Farms. Because of the site’s irregular shape, planners chose the now-distinctive pentagon design. On July 28 — you read that right — Congress authorized funding for the project.
The department’s plan drew immediate objections. Neighbors, activists, and civic leaders complained that even though the planned building would be only five stories tall, it might block the view from Arlington National Cemetery to Washington. After several weeks of wrangling, President Roosevelt sided with the critics and chose a different location, a former airport, for the Pentagon.
Unlike modern land-use disputes of comparable acrimony, however, this one didn’t gum up the works too much. Though the final site hadn’t been officially designated, the War Department spent the summer selecting its vendors and identifying the additional parcels of land it would need to buy around each of the alternative sites. On the same day the construction contract was designed, September 11, work on the Pentagon began.
I can’t tell you the next 16 months always went smoothly. The contractors encountered unexpected problems. Sometimes the construction crews got ahead of the evolving designs. The project blew past its original budget. And although the 16 months of construction may seem lightning fast to us, department officials actually found it frustratingly slow. They had to move some employees into the Pentagon as it was still being completed — when some of the “hallways” were really just wooden planks laid across construction pits.
There’s no such emergency in North Carolina right now. But the example of the Pentagon, and of other construction projects of the era, can be seen as evidence of the proposition that when public agencies and private contractors have sufficient means and motivation, they can act with dispatch.
Can we all agree that it simply takes too long today to plan, permit, design, and complete major public-works projects? There are roads I regularly travel where orange barrels have become a seemingly permanent feature. The cost in dollars, traffic, and frustration are immense.
Now that the national Democrats’ Build Back Better legislation has stalled out, I suggest North Carolina leaders expropriate two-thirds of the slogan to name a new bipartisan initiative: a Build Back Faster bill. Let’s get serious about streamlining state regulations and permitting processes so that public buildings, roads, sewer lines, and other infrastructure can be completed in a reasonable time.
Do that, ladies and gentlemen, and you’ll get a big round of applause. It’ll be well deserved.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.