Construction causes headaches, frustrates merchants

Robert Houk • Apr 9, 2012 at 8:31 AM

Work continues on the ripped up cobblestone street. Merchants there are losing patience and customers as the project drags on. Meanwhile, government officials tell businesses in the historic district that the worst is almost over.

I could be talking about the infrastructure work now going on in Jonesborough, but I’m not. Instead, what I have just described has been in the headlines of another old town — Edinburgh, Scotland. My wife and I visited the Scottish capital for a third time last week, and as always, we left wishing we could have spent more time in a city that Robert Louis Stevenson described as both magical and mysterious.

Princes Street, which separates a portion of the old city from an even older section of Edinburgh, was blocked off to traffic. The cobblestone street has been dug up yet again for trolley tracks. I say yet again since the first attempt at this didn’t quite take. In fact, the tracks sank into the ground.

A few years ago, Edinburgh officials decided to install a tram system in the city similar to one built in Dublin, Ireland. The Irish tram has been hailed as a success, and other cities in Europe have rushed to build one of their own.

But unlike the Dublin tram, which was completed under budget and on time, the Edinburgh project has been one disaster after another. It was supposed to be completed for 48 million pounds. The costs are now estimated to be more than 480 million pounds.

How did this happen, and what has become of that legendary Scottish frugality and engineering know-how? Our tour guide in Edinburgh said the project was doomed from the start. He noted city leaders ripped up a fully functioning trolley system 50 years ago because no one was using it.

They should have left well enough alone.

To say that the Scots are cynical of their government is an understatement. They have little confidence in their government leaders, and those low expectations often seem justified. Allan Swentin, a professional guide in Edinburgh, called the architecture of the Scottish Parliament building “a monstrosity” that befits the poor decisions made by the politicians that inhabit it.

He told us politicians are like bananas: They are green when they are young, then they quickly “turn yellow” before becoming “all mushy.”

I referenced Jonesborough’s work on Main Street at the beginning of this column, but actually things are not as desperate there as they are in Edinburgh. Mayor Kelly Wolfe acknowledged last week that work to replace underground utilities has been a disruption to Jonesborough merchants, but it can’t be helped.

Crews have dug up portions of Main Street to replace 37-year-old underground power lines and a 100-year-old cast iron waterline. It had to be done, Wolfe said, because the downtown area was experiencing power brownouts.

Yes, the project has blocked traffic flow to Main Street, but the mayor said the town has tried to pursue the project in the most “orderly fashion possible.” And it’s a safe bet that the Jonesborough project will be completed long before the trams are running in Edinburgh.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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