Why Does American Infrastructure Cost More and Take Longer To Build Than It Used To?

A series of laws passed in the 1970s may have permanently hamstrung American infrastructure development.


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? New York City subways offer one famous example: The Second Avenue line now being partially constructed nearly 100 years after being proposed costs six times as much as a comparable project in Paris.

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."  

Two explanations frequently offered for this rise are plausible on the surface, but turn out to lack explanatory power. The first is that states built the easier sections of the interstate highway system first, and left for later the more difficult and expensive portions. It seems, however, the later-finished sections do not score worse on a scale of objective difficulty, such as population density, steepness, and the need to cross water barriers. There is also evidence that states' actual practice was in fact to build more difficult sections first because that is where the existing traffic bottlenecks were.

A second possible, but insufficient, explanation is that cost per mile began escalating steeply because of rises in the cost of major inputs, such as labor and materials. Again, this is plausible on its face, but Brooks and Liscow write that it is not supported by actual spending figures. The real, after-inflation cost of labor didn't change much during the period in which spending increased so dramatically. (While the Davis-Bacon Act, with its artificial wage floors, makes federal construction more expensive, that particular law dates back to 1931 and was in effect over the entire history of the interstate highway program.)

What forces, then, did drive the cost escalation? One key finding, the authors say, is that if a given community is wealthier, the state will wind up spending more to build a given mile of interstate. This effect increased over time.

To some extent, correlations of this sort might manifest themselves even if affluent neighborhoods do not exert any particular clout. Amenities that attract well-off residents, such as water views, may be the same ones highway builders take pains to avoid spoiling; municipalities may have reason to press for features such as noise barriers in places where property tax collections are high and officials have an incentive to keep property values from falling, and so forth.

Another possibility, however, is that 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.

Among Brooks and Liscow's most interesting findings is this: The relationship between local resident income and project expense took off just as these changes in law were coming online. Before 1970, the two were related modestly enough that the correlation failed to score as statistically significant. It then proceeded to quintuple.

The story the authors tell is complicated, not simple. They do not dispute that the new "citizen voice" laws brought some authentic benefits; objectors could bring genuinely useful information to the highway planners about ways to avoid environmental harm. They write that they do not have the means to choose between the "benign" interpretation of the cost facts (citizen voice allowed government to spend money so as to avoid harms that would have been objectively costly) and the "malign" interpretation (the process improved the relative position of some favored parties without adding much social value overall).

Somewhere, though, the late William Tucker is smiling. In "Environmentalism and the Leisure Class," an influential 1977 Harper's Magazine essay later expanded into the 1982 book Progress and Privilege, Tucker argued that the environmentalist banner, when waved against local development, offers a conveniently genteel way to "favor the status quo" for those whose "material comfort under the present system has been more or less assured."

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  1. Tucker argued that the environmentalist banner, when waved against local development, offers a conveniently genteel way to “favor the status quo” for those whose “material comfort under the present system has been more or less assured.”

    I’ll say it again – a developer is somebody who wants to build a cabin on the mountaintop, a conservationist is somebody who already owns a cabin on the mountaintop.

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  2. Biden will get our infrastructure in place! Even if it takes Trillions!

    1. Bribing the greens into neutrality don’t come cheap.

    2. More like, “Biden will destroy our infrastructure in place! Even if it takes Trillions!”

      Ref; Replacing real Energy with chicken-little’s “the sky is falling” bullhorn alarms.

    3. Its interesting how its almost always the
      environmentalists,unions,liberals etc fault but never the wealthy,the bloated military budgets or company Ceos. I worked with several unions in the metro Detroit area and saw little evidence for the accusations made here but TONS of management waste,and remember management waste = payroll costs with several zeros added. 1 Ceo costs more than hundreds of workers n yet people seem 2b conditioned 2 blame the workers.

      Consider the fact that the U.S. m.i.c. has pissed away trillions of dollars losing a war in a 3rd world country that no Afghan started while the American Society of Engineers recent evaluation of our infrastructure rates it a C- to a D. Their cost estimate to update our crummy n crumbling infrastructure? Virtually the exact amount of our taxes pissed away in Afghanistan. .

      No unions did anything like this,ever.
      Now this is something to be concerned about.

      Next time u rant about the unions,be fair n rant a hundred to a thousand times more about the CEOs (to keep things in proportion) n the American oligarchy which has wasted our money killing innocent people in 3rd world poverty stricken countries who had nothing to do with 9/11 while stuffing their bank accounts with our tax dollars to the tune of trillions of dollars. Do any of u know the Pentagon can’t account for over $21,000,000,000,000 (minimum) of our money, a figure every union in the history of the world would never be able to begin to approach. Oh,and they would accomplish whatever task set 4 them unlike our our Out to lunch on 9/11 military-none of whom were fired,instead they all got promotions-for not doing their overpriced jobs.

      Now there’s something to bitch about.

      1. We were vendors at a convention in Las Vegas. We needed an extension cord plugged in and under the terms of our agreement with the convention had to call in a union electrician. He just walked up and plugged it in and he wasn’t cheap. We could have done it for free, and considering we had 4 electrical engineers at the booth they were pretty well qualified to plug in an extension cord.

  3. So basically we’re making sure our society is better protected than just having miles upon miles of roads and such. Seems a fair compromise.

    Could’ve saved a ton of money if we just hadn’t expanded and expanded interstates all for suburban sprawl. The money wasted on subsidizing the suburbs is absurd and it’s a pile that only continues to be added to. The better option at this point is to stop building new things, maintain some of what we have, and decrease the existing supply where feasible.

    1. Another Bernie Sanders bro. Go fuck yourself.

      1. + infinity

    2. I’d be curious to know out of, say, a billion dollars of costs of infrastructure, how much goes to lawyers and administrators. And also curious to compare with 50 years ago.

      1. mtrueman
        don’t forget Unions and buy offs but also often ignored most any new project now requires the rebuilding of surrounding residence and infrastructure just as a bargaining point for approval which is way outside the needs of the proposed road work

        1. Unions are paid for by the workers who belong to them, by union dues. Legal and administrative costs are part of the project, and are not paid for by the construction workers. In education and military matters, legal and administration has been eating up an increasing portion of their budgets, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the same held true for infrastructure construction projects.

          1. Uh huh. You do understand that unions negotiate lots of inefficiencies into their labor contracts to guarantee more job slots for the same output, right?

            1. Makes perfect sense. More jobs, less work. The union would be derelict in its duty to its members if it strove for anything less.

    3. so, the famous “Road Diet”, complete with bike lanes and light rail….

    4. Nice support of behavioral sink dinners.

    5. Sorry to hear you can’t afford a nice house.

      1. With that backwards logic it’s no surprise.

    6. “So basically we’re making sure our society is better protected than just having miles upon miles of roads and such…”

      Dimbulbs like this lefty shit seem to think that, oh, medical assistance, or, say, foo, arrives on the backs of unicorns.
      There are those who presume such is a result of a certain ‘idealism’. Nope: pure, fucking abysmal stupidity.
      Fuck of and die, asshole.

      1. Don’t you remember the analysis laid out in one of these comment threads maybe a year and a half ago that suburban development amounted to a Ponzi scheme leaving future taxpayers and rate payers holding the bag for long term costs that’d been lowballed in the interim? There really was something to it.

        Why shouldn’t our default assumption be that government infrastructure development consists of uneconomic boondoggles? That’s what Murray Rothbard thought. Just because much of the opposition to it is lefty shits doesn’t mean opposing them on this is pro-liberty.

        1. New subdivisions in Cali are required to make new roads and infrastructure themselves, which can be extensive hence why we only get massive developments now because no small builders can afford the upfront cost. but also limits housing.

        2. Good points. When did libertarians start supporting public infrastructure projects? Same thing with Reasons obsession with spending taxpayer money on private and charter schools. Economically speaking it doesn’t make much difference to the taxpayer if their money goes to X or Y; what matters is their money is no longer theirs to spend as they see fit. Let’s start talking about truly private alternatives to public infrastructure, public education etc

    7. Yet you want to bring tens of millions more legal here. Stupid treasonous progtard.

    8. Much better we’re all piled on each other in city slums. No thanks. I got outta there and don’t plan on ever going back.

    9. I thought spending on infrastructure jump started and expanded the economy?

      That is what Obama said in 2008.

      Stop being such a racist!!

    10. So open borders for millions of new immigrants while decreasing the supply of housing. LMFAO!

  4. Oh, I assumed it was due to corruption, like in California and Massachusetts.

    1. That was my first thought…. that or union clout.

      MA vs NH is always an interesting comparison.

  5. Interesting theories, but the obvious and undeniable fact is that ALL of the increases are the fault of Trump, and Trump alone.

    1. To be more specific they are the fault of Trump’s hair.

  6. Graft.

    1. About 10 years ago the local media here was making fun of the fact that it costs the state of Washington $30k to put up a sign on the side of the road. $15k just to “clear brush and debris” around the spot where the sign goes. Probably twice that now.

      I know I could be persuaded to kickback a few bucks to the appropriate bureaucrat for a contract like that.

      1. Of course it’s expensive. Lots of progs in Olympia must wet their beaks.

  7. One major end goal of environmentalists is to ban cars – or at least do everything possible to make traffic worse and make owning and operating a car as difficult and expensive as possible.

    1. Judge dread city style.

      1. I was told we’d have flying cars by now.

        1. And jet packs!

    2. So True in California Governor moonbeam canceled all new Freeway construction his first time in office which set California back by almost a generation or more

  8. The Hoover Dam cost 679 million in inflation adjusted dollars. Probably could not afford to build it today, even with anther century of dam building experience and computer assisted design instead of an army of draftsmen doing calculations by hand.

    1. Yes, but they actually got an education in school.

    2. To be honest, if Hoover was built today, it probably would come out worse than the current model. Today’s crop of engineering elites are fucking incompetent.

      1. it now takes almost as long to design as it takes to build

    3. IIRC, The Hoover Dam was built in 5 years.

      If a similar dam were built today, would the environmental impact statements be done in 5 years?

  9. There is no reason for politicians to speed up construction, so they allow it to go slowly. Just basic low level corruption.

    1. ^THIS; It’s 3rd Party stolen money – why should they care?

    2. Here in Michigan, crews are constantly doing construction on the same roads over and over and over again. Keeps the unions busy and the crony suppliers and contactors in the black. Way in the black. The theory is that they use substandard materials and methods for just that purpose.

    3. “There is no reason for politicians to speed up construction, so they allow it to go slowly. Just basic low level corruption.”

      Since the author of this article made a point of comparing U.S. infrastructure projects to ones in The Netherlands and France, that and your comment make me wonder. Politicians in those countries do not get involved in infrastructure projects? Huh, who knew?

  10. Isn’t this obvious? They were making jokes about environmental impact laws affecting construction on MST3K 25 years ago

  11. I blame unions.

    For every one guy digging ten are standing around him wearing reflective vests, smoking cigarettes.

    1. ya. graft.

    2. “I blame unions.”

      That’s smart. Blaming the mob might be dangerous.

    3. its so true the other day i drove by a crew working on a telephone pole. there were 5 men standing and one man digging and not ironically the only one digging was the latino.

    4. Out here they’re playing on their cell phone. Obese and incapable of walking, let alone construction.

    5. “I blame unions.”

      Construction workers in France and The Netherlands don’t belong to unions? Huh, who knew.

  12. the main driver is two little words….. “government contract.”

    1. ^^^yep

    2. France and The Netherlands don’t build infrastructure via government contracts? Huh, who knew.

  13. “requires environmental impact review”

    “3/23/2021 The Pentagon announced today that the next series of talks with the German Occupation Government, regarding the proposed Allied invasion of Normandy, would take place next Thursday. Items on the agenda are 1) the adequacy of hearing protection devices for German soldiers who will come under bombardment, and 2) the survivability of the endangered Beach Plover which nests in the cliffs at Pont du Hoc. Pentagon officials, who can not be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak, now believe the invasion cannot proceed before June of 2035 due to the number of environmental issues still to be resolved.”

  14. Well for one thing, the United States as a whole is geographically much larger than Europe or any individual European state. Building a highway across the United States could be expected to cost a hell of a lot more, and maintenance is obviously going to be a hell of a lot more too.

    And for another thing, labor costs have gone way up and compliance with government diktats have also tacked on a lot of costs.

    You think the government would allow something like the Eisenhower Tunnel to be built up in the mountains today without environmental impact studies that go on for decades?

    Essentially, American’s are so risk averse we tell ourselves it’s worth a quadrupling of costs in order to meet arbitrary environmental and labor regulations. Back when the U.S. was actually building the interstate highways, nobody gave a fuck about those things.

    And countries like China still don’t give a fuck about things like that.

    The budget showed that 900 workers were being paid to dig caverns for the platforms as part of a 3.5-mile tunnel connecting the historic station to the Long Island Rail Road. But the accountant could only identify about 700 jobs that needed to be done, according to three project supervisors. Officials could not find any reason for the other 200 people to be there.

    Something something Unions is almost certainly the answer when talking about the New York project. Also it’s probably not a coincidence that in the U.S. these programs love to tout their ‘job creation’ ability, and this is pretty literally why they make that claim. It’s not about the tunnel so much as it’s about paying people not to do anything useful and enriching organizations that funnel that money right back into a politicians pocket.

  15. I read an excellent academic article about this subject some years ago. Here in Massachusetts, there was a change in the 1970s to allow for community involvement in development projects – ‘power to the people!’ Communities started allowing residents to have their say at every different stage of overview. As a result, you and your merry band of protesters could go to one committee, give them ‘we’re against it because ‘A’ ….’ get shot down, go to the next committee, say ‘we’re against it because ‘B’ …’ get shot down, go to the next committee (think roads, safety, environment, DPW, animal control, etc). Now the developer is paying interest and a lawyer s and making no money, so he quits and walks away. Hurray, we won! Community involvement created NIMBYism – there you have it.

    1. You might appreciate the Chinese way of doing things. They might flood an entire city out of existence and the residents would be completely powerless to stop it. Last year, by the way, China was spending about a trillion and a half $US on infrastructure and was the only major country on the planet to experience some 2% economic growth. The US economy shrank by about the same amount and didn’t invest in infrastructure but bailed out failing businesses instead.

      1. No kidding you piece of shit. People like YOU made them fail. With your bullshit lockdowns and your oppressive KungFlu restrictions.

        This is YOUR fault. It’s becoming clearer all the time that the best way to save this country is to deposit your kind in landfills. Face down.

        1. Read it again. They are not failing. They are succeeding. It is the US which is on a one way trip to palookaville. I hope you rubes enjoy the ride.

          1. We may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least we are enjoying the ride.

          2. Not giving a fuck about “diversity” and New Left shibboleths tends to make for a stronger country.

            1. Diversity doesn’t necessarily make for a ‘stronger country,’ whatever that means. It makes for a more resilient society, more able to adapt to whatever changes are in store for us. That’s the lesson of ecology, in any case.

              If you think China is not a diverse country, go and visit. There are huge areas of desert, mountains, jungles, grass lands, cities, wetlands, forests, lakes, rivers etc, and that’s only geography. Ethnographically speaking, there are dozens of distinct nationalities that have been there for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Even among the Han Chinese, there is tremendous diversity in dialect, diet, political tradition etc.

          3. You read what I wrote again. This country is in trouble because of you, not me. And if we go down, it’s your fault.

            You exist because non progressives tolerate you. Tolerance has a limit.

            1. “This country is in trouble because of you, not me.”

              I never denied it. Now shut up and enjoy the ride.

              1. You’re proud of all the evil leftist crap you’ve enabled, aren’t you?

                1. We haven’t even begun. I’m looking forward to watching you crack under our mandatory self criticism sessions to be conveniently held at your neighborhood re-education center.

                  1. Although you’re clearly being sarcastic, you’re more accurate than you realize.

  16. This is not fair news I saw here. The Government of America took care of all this destruction. Well check it out here an eCommerce website design agency and get a quote if you need your store online.

  17. The Overton Park v. Volpe case concerned the construction of Interstate 40 through Memphis. The Highway would have cut through through the park, which also has the city zoo. A lot of houses had already been demolished for the right of way and the eastern stretch was already under construction. Eventually the interstate was rerouted around the north of Memphis and the section completed on the east side became Sam Cooper Boulevard. But the vacant right of way remained until it was sold off for redevelopment in the 1990s.

  18. Oh for fucks sake. Do authors here simply not understand what LAND is? Gawdallfreakingmighty. If you can’t understand land – and choose to ignore the subsidies of highway construction and land acquisition from the era of say the California Cycleway/Pasadena Freeway or Robert Moses – until the 1970’s.

    If you can’t even bother to try to understand land – when you are dealing with freaking roads – then you are a fraud (and apparently a bit of a useful idiot) and should just STFU.

    Another possibility, however, is that wealthier persons are simply “more effective at voicing their interests in the political process.”

    all very true. But only really relevant because those interests are NOT voiced in a way where those who voice those interests are PAYING for the increased costs of their plans. Course – the only way those costs can be paid (assuming roads are a govt expense not the yet-more-useful-idiot stupidity of pretending that roads will be private) is via some sort of land-based tax. Where people PAY if they want some NIMBY thing.

  19. In my state, the department of transportation has the reputation of being one of the most inefficient and corrupt in the country. That can’t be helping.

  20. Because Government programs and policies are never truly for the purported people or purpose but are for politicians and bureaucrats power, ‘profit’, and privilege.

  21. Of course it’s environmental busybody-ism.

    And the US can build a bridge over a freeway in a weekend – the Sepulveda Blvd bridge over I-405, between west Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley in California was done in a weekend.

    1. Q: Why did the country build a bridge over the freeway in a weekend?

      A: To get to the other side.

    2. Nice to see you here again doc.

  22. “Why Does American Infrastructure Cost More and Take Longer To Build Than It Used To?”

    ‘Cause using a one person running a heavy loader with a bucket to do what one person with a shovel can do, is a waste in every way imaginable.

    1. Union Wages and “better than” syndrome.
      The Autobahn was initially built with thicker under bed.

      They then held the weight of larger vehicles to lower limits.

      Interstate highways have lesser beds, and after many years larger weight limit.

  23. Here are my culprit candidates:

    1. “Gold-plating” of projects as a result of environmental and legal sensitivity.
    2. Fewer contractor competitors due to governmentally imposed barriers to entry.
    3. Corruption in bidding processes.
    4. Falling interest rates, making the cost of debt lower, resulting in less financial discipline in the process.

    1. The ‘culprit’ has nothing to do with post-1970 things because the ‘culprit’ is costs that were hidden and subsidized before 1970. So a benchmark is created for those 1970 costs that is completely bogus and cronyist.

      The Harbor Freeway – from Long Beach to downtown LA – shows a wiki history of nothing but name changes and route designations. As if the highway built itself for free and nothing was there. No mention that the land came from railroad right of ways, streetcar right of ways, public roads that couldn’t be easily used by private cars because they were crammed with other forms of transit, and well over 100,000 housing units that were demolished.

      Ignore all those costs and hey – LA has always been based on highways and suburbs and its those damn hipster environmentalists adding costs.

  24. Corruption, graft, nepotism, and last quotas. Hey, I just described the Biden Administration!

  25. Anywhere a deer pees becomes a wetland that must be protected, right?

  26. Build infrastructure and that will built your economy .

  27. INFLATION hits everyone including the government. I was looking at a real estate brochure the other day and about 40 years ago is cost about half as much to build a new home verse buying an existing one.

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    If this is true, why is one of my comments “awaiting moderation”? Because I put two links in it? I guess if I stick to just one link to some work-from-home scam, then it is no problem.

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