Friday, July 29, 2011

Finding Joy and Creativity in Infrastructure

I apologize to my regular health care constituency for the recent spate of postings about infrastructure and other urban planning topics, but it just seems to be one of those times that many of those stories have ripened. To get this out of my system before returning to hospitals and health care next week, I offer this compendium of stories.

I write these in tribute to those public servants who, over the years, joyfully and creatively built or improved the infrastructure that serves the public every day. You might be surprised to think of those activities as either joyful or creative, especially during periods of tight budgets. But, there have been several people who have thrived in the environment, pursuing investments for the public good.Their stories might provide inspiration to current and future generations of public officials.

The Librarian

Notable among this group was Theodore Mann, the longest-serving Mayor of Newton, a suburb west of Boston.  While he did a lot for the City, his pet project was the construction of a new library.  I met with him in the early 1990s, just before the ground-breaking.  He was bubbling with enthusiasm and with the glee of a Depression-era child who had just gotten something for nothing.

“I was able to get a third floor,” he said.  “I only had approval for two floors, but I put an alternate into the bid document.”  Ted knew the public construction laws well enough to understand that you did not have to re-bid a building project if you put a provision asking bidders to scope out an optional extra additional item.  As the City prepared the bid documents, he was alert to the fact that the construction market was a bit soft, and so the bids for the two-story building would likely come in under the architect’s estimate.  What if he could get a third floor added, and still have the whole thing come in under budget?

It worked.  The bids, including the third-floor alternate, were low enough to expand the scope of the library substantially.  “We’ll need that space eventually,” he told me.  “But if we don’t get it built now, it will never happen.”

The Dairy Farmer

When Bill Geary took over as Commissioner of the Metropolitan District Commission in 1983, he noticed an odd traffic phenomenon.  About once a week, a truck would enter Storrow Drive or Memorial Drive and attempt to go under the Mass. Avenue underpasses.  It would get stuck, and the roof of the truck would roll up like the top of a sardine can.  Traffic would back up to Watertown.  The MDC police and road crews would go to work, rescue the truck driver, deflate the tires, and tow the truck away.  Meanwhile, thousands of commuters would be late to work.

On the Cambridge side, the freshmen women living in MIT’s McCormick Hall would jump with a start when they heard a crash and would watch the rescue operation.  By second semester, they had become so accustomed to this pattern that they didn’t even look up from their homework.

Bill brought his team together and suggested that having a truck crash into a bridge every week was not acceptable.  Couldn’t something be done?  “No, Commissioner,” he was told.  “Besides, we have a routine all worked out.  The police handle the traffic.  We bring in the tow truck, the Jaws of Life, whatever we need.  We clean out the whole problem within an hour.”

“What if,” he said, “we put signs up at every entrance to the river roads, at the height of the underpasses, with a pictogram warning taller trucks to stay out?”

“Commissioner,” they replied. “Can you imagine the liability if our sign breaks a windshield and sends glass flying into the face of a truck driver?’

“Well, what if we make the signs out of rubber so they don’t break the windows?”

“Rubber signs, Commissioner?  There is no such thing.”

Shortly after this conversation, Bill was driving his car along the Mass Turnpike and was approaching the toll booth that displayed an elevated sign saying, “Cars only.”  He looked closely.  The sign appeared to be made of rubber.   He stopped in the toll plaza, climbed up onto the hood of his car, and grabbed the sign.  It was made of rubber!

He got on the phone and called Jack Driscoll, then head of the Turnpike Authority, and found out where he had purchased the signs.

At the next meeting with his staff, Bill reported that he had found rubber signs and suggested that they be ordered.

“But Commissioner,” someone said, “What good is a rubber sign?  Truck cabs are noisy places.  A trucker will just hit the sign and drive right through without even hearing that he has hit it.”

“Well, then, let’s hang cow bells on each sign, so drivers will hear a noise as they approach our roadway if their vehicle is too high to go through the underpass.”

“Where will we get cow bells?” he was asked.

“I don’t know.  Call a dairy farmer and ask where they get their cowbells.”

The signs were installed, cow bells and all.  The frequency of crashes in the underpasses went from one per week to less than one per year.

The water guy

Boston was growing rapidly in the late 1800s, with the population surging to staff local industries and commerce.  But public officials were worried.  Where would the city get sufficient drinking water?  Local supplies were in danger of contamination from sewage in the city streets.  As reported at the time, “Under certain conditions . . . especially on summer evenings, a well defined sewage odor would extend over the whole south and west ends of the city.”  The danger of typhoid and cholera epidemics was persistent and real.

Frederic Stearns, a civil engineer working for the City’s Engineering Department, designed a system capable of disposing of sewage for the metropolitan area.  The system was later cited by Scientific American as “important advance in sanitary engineering." Later, as chief engineer for the Metropoltan Water and Sewerage Board and later, the state’s Board of Public Health, he devised a plan for providing adequate supplies of clean drinking water.  He envisioned a series of reservoirs to the West, capturing pristine rainwater from central Massachusetts rivers and streams.  The led to the construction of the 65-billion gallon Wachusett Reservoir in 1906 and the 412-billion gallon Quabbin reservoir in the 1920s and 1930s.

Remarkably, all of that water flows by gravity to Boston and its suburbs, avoiding energy costs associated with pumping.  Also, the reservoirs have unheard of levels of reserves – over five years’ worth of supply, even if it totally stops raining for that length of time.  Finally, thousands of acres comprise the catchment area around Quabbin.  These forests, now called “the accidental wilderness”, ensure that this supply is protected from contamination.

Stearns’ attentiveness to detail was legendary.  His 1901 “Report of the Chief Engineer,” to the MWSB stretched to 91 pages, ranging from the “force employed on works” to “removal of soil” to “culverts and crossings” to “consumption of water” to the “quality of the water.”  His management skills with regard to construction were prodigious.  In 1906, he was able to report, “The design of the Wachusett Dam and the contract for its constructions . . . was made . . . on October 1, 1900. . . . There has been no material change in the plant or in the methods.”

Just an engineer

Fred Salvucci’s prowess as a transportation planner is well known, but as Secretary of Transportation, he also played a lead role in shepherding public works projects through the political labyrinth of Beacon Hill.  His tenacity is legendary, but it is based on a substantive knowledge that can only be described at encyclopaedic. An example:

One day, I boarded a flight at Logan Airport, headed to Washington, DC.  I found myself in a row with Fred, with another fellow in the center seat.  This was around the time that people were trying to decide how to design and build the Charles River Crossing of the new Central Artery Project.  It was a tricky engineering problem, with lots of environmental and political ramifications, as well.  The design had been through many revisions, and they were up to number 26, or “Scheme Z.”  As we sat on the tarmac in Boston, I casually asked Fred, “Can you tell me about Scheme Z?”

He started talking, and I started listening.  He stopped talking as we taxied up to the gate at National Airport.  I learned more in that hour-and-a-half about the history of the highway project than I had learned before or have learned since.  I still wonder, though, about the poor guy sitting between us!  I sure hope he was interested in the topic.

I recall a radio interview with Fred during that time, as he engaged in a long discourse with the reporter about the many aspects of the Central Artery project – financial, engineering, work force, and politics.  The interviewer was clearly impressed and started to end the interview by complimenting Fred on his political acumen in creating and maintaining support for this major public works project.   Fred modestly replied, “I’m just an engineer.”  The reporter, tongue fully in cheek, ended the segment, “Thank you, Fred Salvucci, engineer.”

Training the IG to be practical
The office of the Inspector General was created in 1980 by the legislature after the publication of the Ward Commission report.  Officially entitled, the Special Commission Concerning State and County Buildings, this body of experts determined that there had been a pervasive pattern of corruption in the design and construction of state buildings.   The idea was that there should be an office distinct from the Attorney General and the State Auditor:

A "vast middle ground". . . between the ability to review all state transactions to a limited degree without the power to investigate [i.e., the Auditor], and the power to investigate allegations of fraud on a case-by-case basis [i.e., the Attorney General]. . . .

The value of such an office is incontrovertible, but some of us engaged in building major infrastructure projects sometimes found the IG and his staff to be meddling and troublesome interlopers in our plans to be creative with public funds.  I say creative advisedly.  We had no intention or interest in doing anything that would come even close to being illegal.  But sometimes you just have to think outside of the box if you want to actually get infrastructure built.

While at the MWRA running the Boston Harbor Cleanup Project, I needed to build a pier in the Squantum section of Quincy to serve as a ferry terminal for thousands of construction workers who would head to Deer Island every day to build a $3 billion sewage treatment plant.  The ideal site was owned by the local electric company, Boston Edison, which did not want to sell it.  While we had sufficient money to purchase the land and build the pier, my agency did not have eminent domain powers.  But Bill Geary’s MDC did have eminent domain powers.

I called Bill and laid out the issue.  Would he have a way to receive and spend money from the MWRA, without legislative appropriation, take the land from Boston Edison, and permit us to build a pier?  I was operating under a strict Court-ordered schedule and therefore could not await a lengthy and uncertain legislative process.  Without a moment’s hesitation, Bill informed me that he had a parkland renovation trust fund that could be used for such a purpose, on the condition that the acquired land and pier would be available for public use.  “It’s a deal,” I said, and the next day our lawyers codified the transaction.

The Inspector General blew a gasket.  We had no authority do such a thing, he argued.  He threatened that would hold a press conference and otherwise raise a ruckus about our action.  Bill and I quietly suggested that instead, he should make his case before the Federal Judge in the Boston Harbor case, and we would abide by the result.  Silence quickly reigned.


Anonymous said...

Other than joy and creativity, the common theme in these stories is people who find a way to 'just do it', in spite of bureaucratic and other obstacles. This skill is a rare commodity today; so many people would rather just go along to get along.


Anonymous said...

How invisible is infrastructure. We absorb new technologies into our environment and quickly forget prior conditions. We praise Olmsted and deep history, but roadblock better solutions daily.

Dense intergenerational urban life demands vigilant re-engineering, but most of the U.S. population has more rural traditions. In much of the country, a wide highway of fresh concrete signals progress, and other than utilities, the need for much more looks like government overreach and political pretension (not helped by rampant self-naming). Just ask what people think about the Army Corp of Engineers.

It would be nice if the designers of the WPA program, public school systems, and green cities initiatives made the history books, too. Frankly, I don't think people know what to demand from government.