Building Bridges and Calculating Costs

A few years ago, when a disagreement was brewing between two factions—one wanting to outsource New York State Department of Transportation design work to private contractors and one believing that in-house engineers were more efficient and cost effective—Professor of Construction Engineering and Management Bud Griffis knew the solution: conduct an objective study analyzing the costs involved in both scenarios.

The report, which was revised and finalized in January 2011, contained eye-opening information. “It might be anticipated that the cost of an engineer would be the same whether he or she is in the public or private sector,” the document stated. “However this study found that because of the generous benefits package provided by the State of New York, the large amount of paid time off, and a reduced work week compared to the private sector, the in-house engineer actual expected cost to the tax payer exceeds the cost of a private engineer by at least 15%. These calculations are based on conservative assumptions and the actual difference considerably exceeds 15%. The total cost of a career NYSDOT employee to taxpayers is in excess of $ 6.4 million over a 30 year career.”
Because everyone wants to see tax dollars used wisely, Griffis knew that other states could benefit from similar studies. Under his direction, graduate students Elena Pizzoli and Giulia Luci are now embarking on an ambitious plan to perform similar calculations in all 49 remaining states.

Under the auspices of the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), they are gathering the data required, including direct salaries, benefits, and overhead costs. “We want to make sure we’re comparing apples to apples,” Pizzoli explained. “It’s important that the study be entirely objective.”

They admit that collecting that much data can be daunting. “Every state DOT is different, and sometimes it’s difficult to reach the correct person,” Luci said. “In fact, because it’s vacation season, sometimes it’s difficult to reach anyone at all.”

The two, who hail originally from Italy, began the work in May and hope to have the first 15 or so sets of state data acquired and analyzed by September. They predict that the entire project will take three years to complete.

The original New York State report concluded, “The Governor’s office, the state legislature and all state agencies should take advantage of the lower costs and enhanced benefits that the private sector provides in developing and implementing their design and construction programs. This results in immediate and long term benefits to all New York taxpayers.”

Soon, thanks to Pizzoli and Luci, every taxpayer in the nation will have the benefit of a similarly objective look at the costs associated with their bridges and roadways.