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The high cost of America’s aging infrastructure

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With the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis many have turned their attention to the problems posed by America’s aging infrastructure. A potential sinkhole for millions of taxpayer’s dollars, the cost of fixing roads, bridges, and other public works sometimes acts to prevent essential repairs from being made, and may result in tragedy. But according to Barry B. LePatner, author of the forthcoming Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry, providing a safe and well-maintained infrastructure does not have to mean wasting the taxpayer’s money. In an article last Sunday for the Boston Globe LePatner argues that by consolidating a fragmented industry into larger “national construction powerhouses” the business of construction could become much more efficient:

The modern construction business hasn’t changed significantly since the first steel-frame skyscrapers began to rise in the early 1900s. Early tall buildings such as the Tribune Tower in Chicago and the Woolworth Building in New York grew too complex to remain under the purview of a single ‘master builder,’ the architect who knew and supervised every detail of the project. Instead, each required an assembly of specialists—electricians, plumbers, heating contractors, excavators. Dozens, then hundreds of companies arose to handle those systems, each a local family-run shop that drove its truck to one project at a time. Today, in 2007, that’s still basically how the business works.…
This fragmentation has enormous costs. It guarantees that any building site will be an assembly of strangers, with a high risk of miscommunication. It traps the industry in conservative practices, ensuring that any new learning will spread slowly, if at all. Splintered into so many firms, the construction industry has never developed the economies of scale, financial cushions, or comfort with risk that would allow it to enter a new phase and truly modernize.

But, LePatner argues, “under a regime of incentives and real accountability, construction companies would begin to transform. The industry would spawn a few winners that, as they prospered, would acquire the capacity to research new techniques, retain skilled employees through down periods, and buy up dozens or even hundreds of small specialized players.”
To read the rest of LePatner’s article navigate to the Boston Globe website. To find out more about the book, (due out this October), navigate to