Rebuilding ground zero was going to be a great show of American defiance, a Knute Rockne speech to the nation. Seven years on, though, this grand statement is barely a stammer. In an unsparing new progress report, the site's landlord admitted that every part of the project is over budget and behind schedule. It will take several months just to map out a new timeline.
The 16-acre site is a tangle of more than 100 contractors and subcontractors answering to 19 public agencies--a sorry pageant of feuding bureaucrats, shady contractors, litigious developers and overzealous regulators. Even 9/11 advocacy groups share the blame, halting work over smallish details about how best to honor the victims. Few are honored by this impasse of competing agendas.
Nobody is arguing that the rebuilding effort--which will add as much Class-A office space as exists in all of downtown Atlanta--is simple. But lower Manhattan is in danger of becoming a metaphor for America's sluggish response to our most pressing economic challenges. A recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce report shows a litany of problems: an overloaded rail infrastructure that needs new tracks, signals, tunnels and bridges. Most ports need dredging; almost half of all canal locks are obsolete. While China is spending nearly 9% of its gdp on infrastructure, Americans lose $9 billion a year in productivity from flight delays alone.
It is, at heart, about competitiveness. As the U.S.'s largest construction project limps along, China has built the equivalent of several World Trade Center sites in its furious run-up to the Olympics. While conscript labor and forced relocations aren't the American way, the U.S. can't be pleased about being lapped by a developing nation. The global economy rewards countries with the concentration and focus to build quickly and solidly. Bits and bytes are important, but so are steel and mortar. It's not too late for ground zero to be a showcase for American engineering, efficiency and ingenuity. Anything less risks sending exactly the wrong message.