There is rare bipartisan agreement that America’s infrastructure is in need of work and expansion. President Trump has proposed a $1 trillion overhaul of America’s road network, Nancy Pelosi has suggested that she would be willing to work with the president on infrastructure, and congressional Republicans are reportedly eager to tackle the issue. But our politicians should be wary of any infrastructure project that comes with a big price tag, for, in the long run, excessive infrastructure spending will be counterproductive. A big part of America’s infrastructure problem is that we are too generous, not that we are too stingy.
Like 1.3 million other New Yorkers, I take the Lexington Avenue Line into work every morning. The line is by a wide margin the busiest in America, and it shows. In the afternoon, the uptown trains are often already at capacity when they arrive at Grand Central, which means that the only way to board is for passengers to stand between the doors and, as politely as they can, press their bodies against the mob of standing passengers until the remaining space is squeezed out of the car and the train is, in the most literal sense, full. Sometimes the train fills up entirely and the commuters remaining on the platform have to wait for the next one. Even in the best of times, this process takes a considerable amount of time, as New York’s escalating subway delays attest.
It was not always like this. The eastern portion of Manhattan is the densest neighborhood in America and, until 1942, it boasted three rapid-transit lines: the subway below Lexington Avenue and elevated lines along Second and Third Avenues. The elevated lines were demolished, respectively, in 1942 and 1955, with the understanding that they would be replaced by a subway line beneath Second Avenue. The first phase of this subway line opened at the beginning of this year, 62 years later: three stations serving 200,000 riders a day, not enough to seriously alleviate the Lexington Avenue line’s overcrowding except at a few stops on the Upper East Side. These three stations cost $4.45 billion.
Modern America has a spending problem when it comes to infrastructure. Two miles and three stations on the Second Avenue Line cost more than $4 billion; meanwhile Paris is planning to build 68 stations and more than 120 miles of track for approximately $29 billion. The new PATH station at the World Trade Center cost $4 billion and serves 50,000 commuters a day; adjusting for inflation, Grand Central Terminal, which serves 208,000 daily passengers on Metro North, cost only $2 billion when it was constructed in 1913. The infamous “Big Dig” in Boston will ultimately cost $24 billion, more than the Channel Tunnel connecting Britain to France, and approximately four times its initial budget. The first phase of the California High Speed Rail project is already seven years behind schedule and is set to cost 50 percent more than originally estimated.
It’s not hard to see that these perpetual cost overruns are bad for taxpayers, residents, and business. But the repercussions are broader still. Too often, infrastructure spending is justified on the grounds that projects are necessary, and the debate revolves around whether the necessity justifies the cost. Meanwhile, exorbitantly expensive infrastructure projects often mean less infrastructure over time, since cost overruns force projects to finish prematurely and voters grow to distrust, often justifiably, future developments. The Second Avenue Subway line was originally intended to encompass dozens of stations from Downtown Manhattan to 125th Street, serving as a viable alternative to the Lexington Avenue Line for millions of passengers. Sixty years and $4 billion later, the line comprises three stations on the Upper East Side, and it seems unlikely that any mayor will find the support — or the financing — necessary to realize its designers’ complete vision. The Big Dig was originally supposed to be much bigger than it is now, with museums and gardens on the land made accessible by the buried highway, but the immense cost of the project ensured that none of this came to fruition. Even as California pours billions into high-speed rail, the skyrocketing cost is making it harder for the state to finance the project, and it seems increasingly unlikely that the system will ever be completed.
Then there are the projects that are never begun because we know that they could never be completed at the cost of a similar project in Western Europe or East Asia: The immense subway expansions of Paris or Shanghai are unimaginable in New York. So are the high-speed-rail projects that make it possible to travel from Beijing to Guangzhou — two cities as far from each other as New York and New Orleans — in eight hours. Conservatives rightly skeptical of the utility of high-speed rail in a country such as ours may think of Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, which transformed American society for a cost, in modern dollars, of $500 billion. A lot of money, to be sure, but can one really imagine Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan producing anything remotely comparable?
Ultimately, if we want to improve the state of American infrastructure, we are going to have to demand more accountability for costs.
The problem is not that America cannot produce cost-effective infrastructure. The Second Avenue Line’s cost overruns, as Josh Barro describes, had little to do with the geography of Manhattan or with the cost of New York labor. Rather, they resulted from the choice to build stations deep underground and make them exceedingly large. Even if there were no alternative to building the stations so deep, billions could have saved by making the stations smaller, as London does with particularly deep Tube stations. A temporary PATH station established on the site of the current World Trade Center station in the wake of 9/11 cost only $323 million, but transit officials were willing to spend billions because they wanted the permanent station to be an architectural masterpiece. “We would not today prioritize spending $3.7 billion on the transit hub over other significant infrastructure needs,” the executive director of the transit authority later admitted.
One serious source of American overspending is American overbuilding, as elected officials push for projects far more lavish than necessary in an effort to cement their historical legacies. Another is administrative incompetence and mismanagement. Design flaws alone added $1 billion to the cost of the Big Dig. California’s high-speed-rail project has been hampered by a rail authority that “lacks consistent management processes, takes on unnecessary contract risks, does not have orderly records and is short on clearly defined responsibilities for its top officials.” SEPTA, the regional transit authority serving the Philadelphia metro area, spent $274 million last year on flawed trains that had to be replaced.
The good news is that these are not insoluble problems. We can prevent overbuilding by focusing on cheaper, more functional infrastructure rather than on the grandiose projects that mayors and governors tend to love. Administrative mismanagement, while harder to resolve, can be alleviated by political expertise, careful hiring, and realistic timelines. Depressing though most of our infrastructure spending may be, there are examples of cheap and successful projects, too, such as the expansion of O’Hare Airport that finished, to everyone’s surprise, under budget and ahead of schedule.
Ultimately, if we want to improve the state of American infrastructure, we are going to have to demand more accountability for costs. Andrew Cuomo opened the Second Avenue Line to much fanfare, but it should have been a political humiliation. Jerry Brown routinely touts California’s high-speed-rail project as a major accomplishment; in a more just world, it would have cost him his job. Unless we start holding politicians to account for infrastructure that costs far too much and takes way too long to build, we will get the infrastructure we deserve, rather than the infrastructure we need. And above all, we must reject the false dichotomy between expensive infrastructure and no infrastructure. Over the long run, expensive infrastructure means less infrastructure, not more. Painful though it is, and paradoxical though it may seem, our country would be best served by learning to say “no” to any project, however enticing, that is projected to cost sizably more than the international norm. Otherwise, we’ll stay stuck in this mess forever.