In the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake, California needed to take quick action to repair damaged freeways to restore order to traffic in the Los Angeles area — or at least as much order as one can get in the region.  Instead of using Caltrans to repair the destroyed overpasses and roads, the state government waived volumes of regulation to allow outsourcing to the private sector.  The result?  The contractor restored the roads and bridges in months instead of years, and at a fraction of the cost that Caltrans would have incurred.

Minnesotans learned a lesson from that when the St. Anthony Bridge collapsed last August into the Mississippi river.  The rebuilding project may finish as much as three months ahead of schedule, thanks to a series of financial incentives and the hands-off management by MnDOT:

Construction of the new Interstate 35W bridge is moving so swiftly that its builders say they expect to open it by mid-September instead of late December. Their reward will be an extra $20 million in federal funds.

During a weekly public tour of the construction site Saturday, managers for Flatiron Constructors said the bridge is 65 percent complete and that the hanging of concrete segments over the river could begin as soon as May 14 or 15 — three months earlier than originally scheduled.

Flatiron’s $234 million contract with the Minnesota Department of Transportation calls for the bridge to be completed by Dec. 24, but it includes a $200,000-a-day incentive for each day that the bridge is finished before then, up to 100 days. Sept. 15 would be 100 days early, and “we fully intend to make that,” Peter Sanderson, Flatiron’s manager for the project, said Saturday.

The project has had its share of detractors ever since Flatiron won the contract.  It was the most expensive of the bids, but the state chose it for its overall package.  If they can deliver a high-quality bridge three months earlier than expected, no one will spend much of that extra time criticizing the contract award.

Like California, this proves a lesson in free-market power to solve problems efficiently, and in the long run, less expensively.  Instead of running the project themselves, the decision by MnDOT and the legislature to outsource the project applied the skill and experience of the private sector to a critical part of the traffic infrastructure.  The early completion of the project will save millions of dollars in traffic inefficiencies and relieve stress on parts of the local traffic system that weren’t designed for the loads that the bridge’s failure created for them.

Perhaps at some point, people will learn to harness the power of the private sector more completely for future public efforts as well.  If we started to apply this lesson to non-emergencies as well as emergencies, perhaps we would have fewer of the latter.   When we incentivize succes, we succeed.  When we incentivize bureaucracy, we get red tape, delays, and frustration.