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Public Roads - July/August 1999

Top 10 Construction Achievements of The 20th Century

This article is adapted from information provided by CONEXPO-CON/AGG '99, which bills itself as the largest construction, aggregates, and ready mixed concrete industries trade show in the Western Hemisphere. The exposition took place March 23 to 27, 1999, in Las Vegas, Nev. The show is owned by the Construction Industry Manufacturers Association (CIMA), the National Aggregates Association, and the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association. The 1999 show was managed by CIMA and the International Concrete and Aggregates Group and was co-sponsored by the National Stone Association and the Associated General Contractors of America.

Since its completion in 1937, more than 1.6 billion vehicles have crossed the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge spanning the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Before bridge designer Joseph Baermann Strauss submitted his preliminary sketches for the bridge in 1921, the prevailing opinions in the engineering community were that a bridge could not be built at that site or that it would be prohibitively expensive.

According to CONEXPO-CON/AGG '99, the top 10 construction achievements of the 20th century are:

  1. Chunnel Tunnel.
  2. Golden Gate Bridge
  3. Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
  4. Empire State Building.
  5. Hoover/Boulder Dam.
  6. Panama Canal.
  7. Sydney Opera House.
  8. Aswan High Dam.
  9. World Trade Center.
  10. Chek Lap Kok Airport in Hong Kong.

"The Top 10 program was established to teach people how construction has played a critical role in advancing our society. These 10 contributions have positively influenced the quality of life we enjoy today," said exposition co-chairman Bruno Benna.

"This collection bears witness to world-class design, engineering, construction, and technologies about which prior generations could only imagine," said Robert J. Fien, exposition co-chairman.

At Public Roads, we noted that transportation-related facilities are well-represented, recognizing both the importance of transportation projects to the construction industries and the significance of transportation to our economic productivity and quality of life.

The top 10 achievements were selected by poll from 132 projects - including buildings and structures, roads and highways, bridges, tunnels, dams and waterways, commercial centers, and transportation facilities - selected by an international panel of industry executives and editors. Selection criteria on which the top 10 were chosen was:

  • A strong impact or benefit to humanity.
  • A recognized quality of work.
  • A substantial economic impact on the local economy. A recognized overall value for community or region.
  • Professional recognition on local, regional, national, or international levels.
  • Use of innovation and application of new technology.
  • Impact on/sensitivity to the environment.
  • Influence on future projects.

These projects represent more than just concrete, iron, and steel. Two of the projects were built during the Great Depression when workers earned $4 a day. Other projects united a nation, brought together different cultures, or simply provided a gift to the senses.

America's Interstate Highway System is the world's largest public works project in history. Since the beginning of construction in 1956, the interstate system has had a profound influence on the life of virtually every American, returning more than $6 in economic productivity for each $1 it cost to construct, reducing the traffic fatality rate, and changing urban/suburban development and commuting patterns.


The Empire State Building in New York City was once the world's tallest building, and it was constructed during the Great Depression at the rate of four and one half stories per week. Construction was completed five months ahead of schedule and at 10 percent below the anticipated cost


The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River between the states of Nevada and Arizona was built during the Great Depression. Many innovative construction and concrete-curing techniques were used, and the dam was named one of America's Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders by the American Society of Civil Engineers.


The monetary and human cost to build the Panama Canal from 1904 to 1914 are staggering. Adjusted for inflation, the canal cost the equivalent of $400 billion in 1990 dollars, and 5,609 workers lost their lives. The canal, however, eliminated the need and risk of traveleing and additional almost 13,000 kilometers around the southern end of South America to go between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.


The sea-shell shape of the Opera House in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, is recognized as one of the world's most distinctive architectural designs. After 14 years of construction, the Sydney Opera House opened on Oct. 23, 1973.
The Aswan High Dam, crossing the Nile River in southern Egypt near the city of Aswan, has significantly changed the Nile Valley. The dam, finished in 1970, controls the annual flooding of the Nile River; produces 50 percent of Egypt's electric power; and, as a result of the irrigation capacity of the reservoir, has let to a 200-percent increase in the country's agricultural income.


The 412 -meter twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City were the tallest in the world at the time they were dedicated on April 4, 1973, and they are still the tallest structures in New York. The 110 stories and 10 million square feet of rental office space provide work space for 40,000 people. The center also houses Manhattan's largest indoor shopping mall with more than 70 specialty stores and provides a wide variety of spaces and facilities for meetings, trade shows, art exhibits, seminars, and other group functions.


Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok opened on July 6, 1998. Ultimate design capacity will be 87 million passengers and 9 million tons of cargo, making it one of the busiest airports in the world. About 75 percent of the 1,248-hectare airport island was reclaimed from the sea. About 347 million cubic meters of material - roughly 10 tons a second - was moved during the 31 months of site preparation.