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Political Editors / Mar. 30, 2021

In Brief: The Trouble With American Infrastructure

It costs more and takes longer than it used to. Cato Institute’s Walter Olson explains.

Democrats are preparing to spend trillions more dollars on “infrastructure.” With their record on Not COVID Relief, it will be unsurprising to see most of this money go to things other than paying for needed infrastructure upgrades. But the Cato Institute’s Walter Olson also explains why the projects themselves cost more and take longer than they used to.

In time-lapse videos from 2016 that are making the rounds again, Dutch crews can be seen building an entire highway overpass over a single weekend. That has stirred discussion of a longstanding question: Why is construction of public infrastructure slow and expensive in the United States compared with other advanced countries? …

In a 2019 paper, Leah Brooks of George Washington University and Zachary D. Liscow of Yale University sought to explain a striking fact: “Real spending per mile on Interstate construction increased more than three-fold from the 1960s to the 1980s.”

A couple of popular explanations — that states built the easier sections first, leaving more expensive and harder work for later; and that labor and material now cost so much more — are insufficient. A better explanation is that the wealthier we’ve gotten, the more we want our infrastructure to reflect our prosperity. Moreover, “Wealthier persons are simply ‘more effective at voicing their interests in the political process.’”

The highway route gets diverted in a way that protects their amenity, but spoils some equally valued amenity in a less affluent neighborhood. The unwelcome extension is completed far behind schedule, with concomitant expense, because opponents have been skillful at working the system by stretching out hearings and reviews and then suing.

And here is where the concept of “citizen voice” comes in. Brooks and Liscow pinpoint the early 1970s as the inflection point for increased spending on highway projects. What was happening around that time? The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires environmental impact review for federally funded projects, was passed in 1970. California passed its considerably more stringent CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) the same year, and it was signed by none other than Gov. Ronald Reagan. In 1972 and 1973, Congress added additional federal laws that provided key leverage in fighting construction projects on the basis of loss of species habitat and wetlands. The U.S. Supreme Court helped out with the 1971 case of Citizens To Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, which multiplied the chances to go to court over development by curtailing judges’ deference to agency decision making. All of these laws and decisions have made it much easier for citizens to contest infrastructure projects, driving up their cost and delaying their implementation and completion.

This isn’t uniformly bad or wrong, but the explanation does help us understand how it happened.

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