It’s an oft-repeated story, I admit, but I’ll repeat it one more time: The world’s tallest low-rise office building, the Pentagon, was built in 16 months. Can you imagine a project one-tenth the size of the Pentagon being built so quickly today?
Here’s how it happened. In a July 17, 1941 hearing on Capitol Hill, U.S. Representative Clifton Woodrum of Virginia urged the Roosevelt administration to find a “comprehensive solution” to the War Department’s longstanding office crisis. At the time, its employees were spread across 17 separate buildings.
Within days, the department responded with a plan to build a new headquarters just over the Potomac River at Arlington Farms. Due to the site’s irregular shape, planners chose the now distinctive pentagon design. On July 28, Congress authorized funding for the project.
The ministry’s plan drew immediate objections. Neighbors and city leaders complained that although the planned building would be only five stories high, it could block the view of Arlington National Cemetery in Washington. After several weeks of bickering, President Roosevelt sided with the critics and chose another location, a former airport, for the Pentagon.
Unlike modern land-use disputes of comparable acrimony, however, this one didn’t spoil the works too much. Although the final site was not officially designated, the War Department spent the summer screening its vendors and identifying additional plots of land it would need to purchase around each of the alternate sites. On the same day the construction contract was designed, on September 11, work on the Pentagon began.
I can’t tell you that the next 16 months always went well. The contractors encountered unexpected problems. Sometimes construction teams have moved ahead of the evolution of designs. The project exceeded its initial budget. And while the 16 months of construction might seem like lightning fast to us, ministry officials actually found it frustratingly slow. They had to move some employees to the Pentagon while it was still being completed – when some of the “corridors” were really just planks of wood laid over construction pits.
There is no such emergency in North Carolina right now. But the example of the Pentagon and other construction projects of the time can be taken as evidence for the proposition that when public agencies and private contractors have sufficient means and motivation, they can act expeditiously.
Can we all agree that it simply takes too long today to plan, authorize, design and build major public works projects? There are roads I ride regularly where orange barrels have become a seemingly permanent feature. The dollar cost, traffic, and frustration are immense.
Now that the National Democrats’ Build Back Better legislation has stalled, I suggest North Carolina leaders expropriate two-thirds of the slogan to name a new bipartisan initiative: a Build Back Faster bill. Take seriously streamlining state regulations and permitting processes so that public buildings, roads, sewer lines and other infrastructure can be completed in a timely manner.
Do that, ladies and gentlemen, and you’ll get a round of applause. It will be well deserved.
John Hood is a board member of the John Locke Foundation and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution (MountainFolkBook.com).