It happened today - January 5, 2016
It might seem rather tame. But considering how many big government ventures are disasters it’s worth noting the ones that went right, and pondering if possible the lessons.
So on Jan. 5 1933 they started digging a big hole to connect the north and south sides of the narrow mouth of San Francisco Bay. Well, narrow. Not really. There’d been talk of a bridge since 1869 and serious discussion since 1916. But because the entrance to the bay is lovely and deep, around 400 feet, you’d have to span most of it in one enormous jump, at least 3,000 feet, nearly twice any in existence in the early 20th century.
The first design looked to cost $100 million back when that was real money. (Adjusted for inflation it would be around $2 billion today.) So they looked around for engineers who could do better, and eventually settled on a plan that would have an even longer main span, at least 4,000 feet, and cost perhaps $30 million.
This being America, they leapt into litigation. Then came the Great Depression. But city voters were persuaded to agree to $35 million in bonds with a promise of jobs jobs jobs. And in 1932 they persuaded the locally based Bank of America to buy the whole lot to help the local economy.
By golly, they got it built. It opened less than four and a half years later, on May 27, 1937, then the longest bridge span in the world. Two hundred thousand people had crossed it the day before, some on roller skates (of course) and it became an instant icon.
It still is. It didn’t plunge into the water, or massive unforeseen debt, or anything else.
I wish I knew how it happened. Clearly they waited, they consulted voters, they were prudent in their financing and they were open-minded about design. But everyone talks about doing government that way. They just rarely manage it.
Maybe the limited financial resources available to the political authorities forced them to think creatively and humbly. Anyway, it’s worth trying again.