“My fellow Americans, we are the nation that built the Golden Gate Bridge in four years and the Hoover Dam in five. Now, it takes as much as a decade just to plan a major permit or a major infrastructure or anything even remotely major in our country, and that’s ridiculous and it’s going to change.”
— President Trump, weekly address, June 9
“America built the Golden Gate Bridge in just four years. And the Hoover Dam in five years. Think of that. It should not take 10 years to get approvals for a very small, little piece of infrastructure. And it won’t.”
— Trump, remarks in Ohio on infrastructure, June 7 speech
The White House proclaimed the first full week of June as “Infrastructure Week,” a ceremonial week of touting the administration’s plans to overhaul regulations and invest in new infrastructure projects without unveiling specific formal plans to achieve them.
Trump claimed that regulations and permitting for infrastructure takes “as much as a decade” now, compared to the four or five years it took to build the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam. But what he didn’t say is that, it actually took many more years to plan for those projects. We dug in.
The most complex, expensive and high-profile federal infrastructure projects require detailed, comprehensive environmental-impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. But such projects are a small portion of all public infrastructure projects. In fact, 95 percent of projects are excluded from environmental reviews required by law, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Construction on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco began in 1933 and the bridge opened in 1937. Construction of the Hoover Dam along the Arizona-Nevada border took roughly five years to get built and become operational.
Simple projects that only took four or five years to complete? Nope.
While these projects did not face the environmental impact studies, public hearings and permitting regulations that exist today, officials spent many years garnering support from communities (similar to public hearings) and were bound by cost, design and permitting restrictions (“regulations,” in effect) by the government before they were able to break ground.
Golden Gate Bridge
In 1916, San Francisco officials requested plans for a bridge that crossed the Golden Gate Strait. They didn’t accept their city engineer’s proposal because it was too expensive. In 1921, an engineer named Joseph Strauss submitted a satisfactory — and cheaper — proposal. It took Strauss a year and half to vet his project design with residents in northern California communities and convince them to agree to it before he could move forward with the project.
In 1924, San Francisco and Marin counties applied for a permit to the War Department, which objected to the construction because they were concerned Navy ships would be trapped if the bridge collapsed, or have problems navigating around it in heavy fog. It issued a temporary permit first.
In 1928, a special taxing district was formed to oversee the financing, design and construction for the bridge and make sure officials from six surrounding counties could weigh in.
The War Department granted a final permit for Strauss in 1930 — nine years after he submitted his original design. During those nine years, Strauss’s staff “was responsible for directing the thousands of calculations required, for the computation of stresses, the preparation of stress sheets, as well as the development of the specifications, contracts and proposal forms,” according to the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.
“From the beginning, Strauss and his collaborators faced numerous challenges, including opposition from skeptical city officials (who were concerned about costs), environmentalists and ferry operators (who were worried the bridge would impact their business),” according to History.com.
The Hoover Dam was a project of the 1902 Reclamation Act, a series of irrigation projects to use the Colorado River to provide water and electricity to Western states. The Bureau of Reclamation began studying construction of dams in 1902, and the first design was released in 1920.
Another design was released in 1924, which was revised due to cost and construction restrictions. In 1928, the secretary of the interior appointed a board to determine the best design based on economy, safety and engineering feasibility. The final construction contract was awarded in 1931.
Preparing for the construction of the dam was a herculean task. Supportive public infrastructure had to be built before construction on the actual dam could begin. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, these projects “included transportation and communication facilities, housing, water and sewage systems, power and lighting facilities, and a 150-ton cable way for handling heavy equipment at the dam site.”
In 1930-31, the federal government designed and built a whole new town — Boulder City, Nev. — six miles west of the construction site to house about 5,000 people working on the project.
The Bureau of Reclamation awarded the construction contract for the Hoover Dam in 1932. President Roosevelt dedicated the dam in 1935, and the dam was officially operating and open for visitors by 1937. So it took roughly five years for the dam to get built and become operational.
“It’s not just the building of the bridge,” said Henry Petroski, Duke University professor and civil engineering historian. “You can’t just look at when the first groundbreaking ceremony took place and when the ribbon was cut to open the bridge. That may take four years, but it could be decades before that” to plan and get approved.
It took major coordination leading up to the Hoover Dam’s construction to get several states bordering the Colorado River to agree on the plan, said Petroski, author of “The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure.” It’s not exactly a regulation, but it took a tremendous amount of negotiating between state governments to all agree and “appreciate the benefits that would accrue to them.”
“Those two issues — how you’re going to pay for something and how it’s going to benefit the community, state, whatever [entity] is involved, those remain issues to this day,” he added.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
The Pinocchio Test
Trump describes the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam as projects that were constructed over four or five years, unbound by the years of permitting and regulatory restrictions that current-day projects face. But Trump only focuses on the literal construction of the projects, and overlooks the many years of bureaucratic negotiating and regulating that took place leading up to the construction.
Massive infrastructure projects don’t just spring up over four or five years. In making a case for changing regulations that he views as cumbersome, the president creates a misleading picture by minimizing the many years of planning, permitting, negotiating and preparation that were required for the two projects to make sure they were environmentally, bureaucratically and financially feasible. We award Three Pinocchios.
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