Editorial: Project Delays Need a Cure
Canada's media is also rife with stories of big infrastructure construction projects running into problems.
From the June-July 2015 issue page 4
If you want to hear a real horror story of a construction project gone wrong, check out the problems at Berlin’s Brandenburg airport. After writing “Delays” (p. 22), I came across an article about the airport in the Toronto Star (“Germany’s failure to launch,” May 30). The massive new teminal is still not open three years after its due date. There are an astonishing 150,000 issues still to fix, and until they’re done the ticket halls and “ghost” hotel next door stand empty. The terminal won’t open for yet another three years, and the final cost is predicted to be $6 billion compared with $600 million when plans were conceived in 2006.
As the German media has pointed out, this is not a good example of the nation’s reputation for precision and efficiency. What’s worse, the terminal will already be outdated when it does open. It was planned for 22 million passengers a year with no provision for expansion, but planners say it will need to handle 44 million.
Canada’s media is also rife with stories of big infrastructure construction projects running into problems and being chronically delayed. The Toronto York Spadina Subway Extension, the new parkway in Windsor, Walterdale Bridge in Edmonton, a bridge in Victoria, to name just a few. Even in Vancouver, which has built LRTs relatively quickly and on time, tunnelling for the Evergreen Line just ran into problems. Unexpected sinkholes have delayed the schedule by several months so far. It’s not just transportation projects. A few years ago the Niagara Hydro Tunnel project was thrown seriously off kilter when the tunnelling had to be redirected.
Delays exact a financial toll on taxpayers, businesses, not to mention the contractors and design teams themselves. Delays are bad news for all.
One solution might be to use more public-private partnerships. Loath to put its investments at risk, the private sector tends to devote more time to up-front engineering in order to anticipate potential problems. Another solution widely promoted is that clients should hire engineering firms based on their qualifications and expertise (the QBS process). This approach contrasts with the more common one of hiring a firm based on who agrees to do the work for the lowest fee. The latter is just a recipe for disaster because it encourages bidders to underestimate the scope of work and the risks of what might go wrong in order to keep their fee competitive.
The fact is things will go wrong on big, complex projects no matter what the approach. Unforeseen site conditions, weather, worker injuries, are just a few of the wrenches thrown into the mix. Pre-engineering can only do so much. As one engineer pointed out, you will never have infinite resources to do infinite testing for every possible scenario.
Nonetheless, delays in construction are becoming a chronic and expensive problem. They show engineers, architects and contractors in a bad light. The construction industry as a whole needs to come together and figure out why the schedules and costs of so many large projects are being so badly underestimated.