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America Can Only Build Overpasses Now

Want to build a subway or a power line to green energy? Get ready to pay and wait. Freeway blown up? It’s fixed already.

The Philadelphia I-95 collapse.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The partial Second Avenue subway line in New York City was, at the time of its completion in 2017, the most expensive piece of subway ever built in the world, at $2.5 billion per mile — or more than the Grand Coulee Dam, adjusted for inflation. Not coincidentally, it also took an entire decade to finish. The next phase of the same line might cost even more: estimated at $6.4 billion, which is highly likely to increase, by a lot, once construction actually gets going.

Compare that stupendous waste of money and time to the I-95 overpass in Philadelphia that was damaged by a gasoline tanker truck that caught fire underneath. In less than two weeks, a temporary fix reopening half the lanes was in place, and it’s expected that the rest of the repair will be completed ahead of schedule.

Now, it’s a lot easier to fix a busted highway overpass than dig a subway (though I should note a few of the tunnels were already dug back in the 1970s). But it’s still the case that the Second Avenue subway construction was roughly an order of magnitude slower and more expensive than what peer nations like Spain can manage for similar work, while the I-95 repair is more in line with international standards.

It reflects the fact there are plenty of trained engineers in this country who really can design projects quickly when asked, along with plenty of skilled construction workers who can work quickly if conditions are right. All it takes is sheer political panic about inconvenienced suburbanites.

Only that kind of thinking can break through the strangling kudzu of bureaucracy and lawsuits that makes it nearly impossible to build anything in this country.

For instance, this type of panicked efficiency doesn’t apply to new roads. The new interstate 69 has been under construction for many years, and has seen the same kind of delays and skyrocketing cost overruns as in the New York City subway system. It’s only when existing roads get blown up, thus threatening the driving access for existing suburbanites, that the government kicks into gear.

It also doesn’t apply to inner city road repairs, particularly when those repairs might include a loss of driving lanes or parking. In Philadelphia, a proposal to resurface dangerous Washington Avenue, while cutting the number of lanes from five to three or four, was tied up in community meetings and outreach for nearly 10 years, only for the local city council member to abruptly veto the entire redesign at the last minute and return to five lanes.

Delays and attendant cost overruns are also seen with California’s epically mismanaged high-speed rail system, now ten years behind schedule and substantially over budget despite the length of the project being cut by about two-thirds.

Long-distance electricity transmission lines might be worst of all. As Josh Saul, Cailley LaPara and Jennifer A Dlouhy report at Bloomberg, it takes a bare minimum of 10 years for a new line to make it through the gauntlet of regulatory approval from the Department of Energy and Federal Energy Regulatory Agency, as well as state authorities. One line from New Mexico to Las Vegas took 17 years to get final approval.

This is a disaster for America’s climate goals. We need to put a lot more renewable energy on the electric grid, and we need to be able to transmit that energy over longer distances to account for renewable variability between regions. If it takes nearly two decades to simply start constructing new long-distance transmission, we’re not going to make it.

There are many reasons why America has this problem, but a central key one is the growth of judicial power — and liberals are partly to blame. As Paul Erlich explains in his book Public Citizens, in the 1970s a new movement of liberal legal activists led by Ralph Nader, motivated by the Vietnam War and the numerous environmental disasters caused by federal government projects like dams and highways, mounted an activist campaign to force the government to undertake legal reviews before building things, make it easier for people to sue the government, and so on.

Their reasons for doing this were understandable at the time. But the overall result was calamitous, playing directly into the neoliberal turn under Presidents Reagan and Clinton. Nader and his allies made it dramatically more difficult for the federal government to do anything, especially build infrastructure, and conversely dramatically easier for any interested party to gum up the process of government with lawsuits. After Nader’s initial successes, the conservative movement seized on his legal tactics themselves — and with much greater success given how the very nature of the court system biases it towards rich elites who can afford to hire the most well-connected law firms, or stuff luxurious gifts into the pockets of Supreme Court justices.

Another reason is the American fetish for community input. On the face of it, it’s not clear why holding a meeting where random people can show up and talk represents “the community” instead of a small and highly unrepresentative group of retired busybodies, cranks, and, not uncommonly, paid sockpuppets for some vested interest. In any case, even if we grant the value of community meetings, they are often cynically abused — in the Philadelphia story above, every single meeting and every survey found a large majority in favor of cutting down the number lanes. They were just held over and over to buy time while elites maneuvered behind closed doors to get what they wanted.

A third reason is the American addiction to consultants and contractors. During the neoliberal turn, it became axiomatic to assume that the private sector could do absolutely everything better and cheaper than government. Just fire most of the state employees, it was thought, replace them with private firms, and everything will be great. This created stupendous corruption, as tick-like companies ballooned enormously on government contracts without the former expert oversight. And the resulting cost bloat made it harder to build, as 10 projects’ worth of money disappeared into the gullet of one project’s contractors.

With all these barriers to government action, only the incredible political dominance of suburban commuters can break through them. Instead of 10 years of meetings, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro immediately declared a state of emergency. Workers began demolishing the wrecked bridge on the same day it collapsed. Police escorted deliveries of asphalt and other construction material. When rain threatened to slow down the scheduled reopening, the state dragooned a NASCAR track drying machine from Pocono Raceway, blasting the road surface with air at jet engine velocity so it could be dry enough to paint on the same day it was paved.

This type of inventive, dynamic agility is all but unimaginable in any other American governance context. It reflects the political importance of suburban voters, particularly in swing states like Pennsylvania, and perhaps more to the point, the hegemonic assumption that suburban commuter interests are basically the entire point of government. When they are threatened, ordinarily sluggish and timid politicians spring into action, trampling over precedent as necessary, and digging into every possible corner for available resources.

It might take a decade to build three subway stops, or two decades to build a moderately long transmission line. But whenever a critical freeway overpass goes down, all levels of government will spring into action.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is the managing editor at The American Prospect, and author of the book "How Are You Going to Pay for That?: Smart Answers to the Dumbest Question in Politics." Read More

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