Drive past LaGuardia Airport, down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway or across the Tappan Zee Bridge, and the scene changes nearly every day. Steel beams rise for the airport’s new terminal, pillars and cables take shape for the new Kosciuszko Bridge, and the span of the new Tappan Zee continues to form. By all accounts, the projects are on time and on budget, words that in the past were rare in describing New York’s big construction efforts.
Welcome to the world of design-build.
Design-build is a method that allows government agencies to join the design and construction phases of a project under a single contract so that one entity is responsible. It’s supposed to save time and money, while allowing for a cohesive, collaborative process.
To date, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has used the strategy on a case-by-case basis. Now he’s proposing legislation to give all state agencies and county-level governments outside of New York City authority to use design-build. Design-build eliminates the bidding phase that occurs between when a project is proposed and designed, and when building begins. It can eliminate some fights and miscommunication between architects and contractors by putting a project in a single team’s hands, which can prevent some cost overruns. Fundamentally, it shifts the risk from the taxpayer. Contracts contain incentives for on-time, on-budget projects, and penalties for delays.
Cuomo’s proposal wouldn’t affect towns, villages or cities, including New York. On Long Island, it could cover anything on county or state land, or overseen by a state or county agency. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority already has design-build authority, so the Long Island Rail Road third-track project is eligible. Under the expansion, new projects at Belmont Park, construction at state campuses, and development on county land, such as at the Nassau Hub, could benefit. Stony Brook University officials say they might have saved money and time if their $400 million hospital and research laboratory project had been done through design-build.
Cuomo and legislators should consider expanding design-build authority. Twenty-five states give it to every level of government. If design build is extended to towns, villages and cities, including New York City, it could save taxpayers money and spur economic development. But there are political pitfalls. State officials worry they won’t be able to get a law passed that includes New York City. Some labor unions, particularly upstate, oppose design-build, and worry it will cut them out of the process. But those hurdles shouldn’t be insurmountable.
To make design-build succeed, local and state officials will need to learn best practices and get training on how to implement the strategy, develop contracts and oversee projects. The Design Build Institute of America’s expertise is a good resource. Accountability and oversight are critical, and clear, comprehensive reporting requirements must be spelled out. Design build won’t solve every roadblock to Long Island development; local officials would still have to improve approval processes to make projects easier and cheaper to build. But Cuomo’s efforts mark a welcome shift in how projects can be designed and constructed. That opportunity should be open to all. — The editorial board