Vice President Biden was in New York City yesterday to announce a $500 million project to repaint the Brooklyn Bridge with the assistance of $30 million in federal "stimulus" money and $192 million in other federal money. A New York Sun editorial from 2006 provides some useful context and skepticism missing from today's press coverage (come to think of it, despite the vaunted New York newspaper "war" between the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, there isn't much coverage of this $500 million expenditure of taxpayer funds). From the 2006 Sun editorial:
So the latest report from the city's department of transportation estimates a cost of $85 million to repaint the Brooklyn Bridge, which is rusting to the point of "serious deterioration" and hasn't been painted since 1991.The department's annual reports have listed the paint job as being "in design" since 2002. In the meantime, the bridge, one of the city's icons of engineering and architecture, rusts away, the victim of neglect and graffiti vandals, as documented in photographs in today's New York Sun by Konrad Fiedler. A spokesman for the transportation department, Craig Chin, says the long-awaited paint is not expected to be applied until 2009. By then the cost of the paint job will probably go up by another few million; between 2004 and 2005, the estimated cost climbed by $11 million.
Why should it cost so much to get a bridge painted? Much of the bridge is stone or cable and doesn't require paint at all. For the parts of the bridge that do require painting, $85 million strikes us as a steep price. It strikes us that an enterprising New Yorker could take the $85 million, hire 50 union painters at $1 million apiece, tell them to work for a year and buy their own paint, and still have $35 million left over in profits to spend on work by less expensive painters, like, say, Pablo Picasso.
A follow-up Sun editorial made another point:
It turns out that the way the city will pay for the upcoming paint job is symptomatic of New York at its fiscal worst. The bulk of that $85 million, or whatever the cost shoots up to by the time painters actually arrive on site, will come not from the city's operating budget but from its capital budget. That means the city will be paying for the project with borrowed money, for New York's capital kitty is financed almost entirely through bonding. Taxpayers will be paying the principal and interest for decades. Routine maintenance of a capital asset like a bridge should come from the operating budget, while the debt-funded capital budget is reserved for new infrastructure projects that will enable new economic activity to expand the tax base to pay off the debt.
The $500 million project involves some roadwork as well as some painting, but it looks like we understated it back in 2006 when we predicted that the cost of the estimated $85 million paint job would "probably go up by another few million" by the time the paint is finally applied. Try a few hundred million dollars. We noted back at the time that the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco had a team of painters on staff rather than letting the bridge deteriorate to the point where it costs $500 million to fix up.
Just for reference's sake, the bridge cost a reported $15 million when it was built in 1883, by a private company. Adjusting for inflation that's in the neighborhood of $340 million. In other words, it's costing more to paint the bridge and expand a few on-ramps to two lanes from one than it it cost to build the bridge in the first place.
The city's press release on the project is here; additional background from the city's department of transportation offers some clues about why it would cost more to paint and repair the bridge now than it did to build it back in 1883: "Dust collection, vacuum and recycle units will be employed to minimize environmental air quality risks, and there will be continuous air monitoring during operations. All painting work will be conducted in accordance to the US Environmental Protection Act and NYS Department of Environmental Conservation requirements. Noise generated by these units will conform to the NYC Noise Code standards adopted in 2007....Lead paint is removed in a reverse-pressurized (negative air) containment system. Paint operations are monitored as per NYC, NYS, and US Environmental Protection Agency standards. Monitoring is conducted by an experienced environmental consultant firm retained for this purpose....We will publish brochures in Spanish and Chinese, and can accommodate any other community requests for additional languages."