As the nation hunkers down and confronts the coronavirus, there have been calls for a surge to build infrastructure to restart the economy while we simultaneously repair, replace and modernize our fraying web of roads, bridges, and train, power and fiber-optic lines.
Nice idea, but there is a problem: We appear to no longer know how to build infrastructure in a timely, cost-efficient and quality manner. An array of journalists and scholars has rubbed our noses in this over the last decade. They include Josh Barro, Yonah Freemark, Aaron Gordon, Henry Grabar, Matthew Yglesias, Alon Levy, Brian Rosenthal, Noah Smith and Stephen Smith.
Their work has primarily focused on rail transport, from subways to light rail to high-speed intercity lines. The completion of the roughly 1.5-mile first leg of Manhattan's Second Avenue Subway in 2017, at a cost of $4.5 billion, triggered celebration, but also criticism. Philip Mark Plotch, a former planner with the region's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, titled his new book on the Second Avenue line Last Subway: The Long Wait for the Next Train in New York City, in part to say that if costs weren't reduced it would be the last subway of its type constructed in this country.
But it's not just rail. In 2014 I wrote in Governing about how while Europe and Asia were excelling at designing and constructing light, airy bridges, the United States was still building clunky concrete slabs. Less-skilled labor in our country appeared to partly explain the difference. And in 2015 I looked at a lavish amenity-filled linear park in Spain that had a shockingly low total price tag.
Then there's highway construction. Examining the Interstate Highway System for a Brookings Institution paper published last year, Leah Brooks of George Washington University and Zachary Liscow of Yale found that, after adjusting for inflation, by the 1980s it had become three times as expensive to build a mile of superhighway as in the 1960s. They concluded that demand for more-expensive highways — roads with noise barriers, for instance — has tracked increases in income and housing values as well as the rise since the 1970s of what they call "citizen voice" in governmental decision-making.
Looking more broadly at infrastructure, analysts generally agree on a set of factors that drive costs and time up and quality down.
Republicans have cut back government to save taxpayer money. But with infrastructure, this ends up costing taxpayers more money, because governments no longer have the staff to do their jobs well. So departments and agencies farm out work to expensive private-sector companies and consultants, work that in other countries is handled cost-effectively in-house. Another cost-cutting move that backfires is the dribbling out of funds over years for projects, which would be less expensive to build in the long run if funded more quickly.
Democrats have championed environmental protection. With infrastructure, this has meant using the environmental review process, which routinely adds years to projects, sometimes decades. Opponents are adept at using it to delay a project for reasons unrelated to safeguarding nature. Clearly the process needs streamlining and reform.
Then there's labor. We aren't paying our workers any more than in other developed countries, but we are sometimes paying two or four workers to do what one worker would do abroad. Inflexible unions are part of the problem here, even though our workforce is less unionized than Western Europe's.
There also are factors that lack any political ideology in their origin. A pipe, a wire, a road or a rail typically cuts across and through levels of government, requiring multiple state, local and federal jurisdictions and agencies to work together. This is a challenge all over the world, but evidence suggests we have a harder time with it than most.
Finally, our common-law legal system, which we inherited from Great Britain, pushes us to have overly detailed contracts while also using lawyers and lawsuits to work out disputes rather than accomplishing that through the governmental management process. Great Britain has higher infrastructure costs and slower construction times than most countries other than the United States, and common law is probably one reason.
All these factors and others mean that infrastructure construction in the United States has come to resemble health care and education, sectors that are bloated with far higher costs than in other countries, with often worse results.
"U.S. costs are high due to general inefficiency — inefficient project management, an inefficient government contracting process, and inefficient regulation," Noah Smith, a former finance professor, wrote in Bloomberg Opinion. It "is an area where Americans have simply ponied up more and more cash over the years while ignoring the fact that they were getting less and less for their money. To fix the problems choking U.S. construction, reformers are going to have to go through the system and rip out the inefficiencies root and branch."
But where to start? The urbanist and scholar Alon Levy says Americans need to get over their apparent reluctance to look at how other countries do things — that we should imitate, not innovate. "The US needs to understand that the path to a future with better American transportation lies not in America's past, but in Europe and East Asia's present," Levy wrote on his blog. The history, he wrote, is "one of American insularity and stagnation, to which the solution is to adapt technologies that work elsewhere."
Here's another way to look at it. We should look for ways to align the interests of all of the parties responsible for infrastructure — the planners, politicians, designers, unions, construction companies and users — so that all of them are pulling in the same direction to create something quickly, well and of quality.
How to achieve that may not be obvious, but such an alignment is not unknown. It happens with co-ops, some of which serve quasi-governmental functions by providing electricity, broadband, telephone service and health care. With co-ops, the customers are also the owners, so the structure works to provide the best service at the lowest price. Could we use something like co-ops to oversee subways or highways, including their construction? I'm not sure how that could be done, but the question is an interesting one.
Of course, the likelihood is that the latest calls for infrastructure spending will once again nowhere. But if we are to focus more on infrastructure either now or later, it's unreasonable to ask taxpayers to pay for more of it until we figure out how to do it well.
Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.