Politics & Policy

Fixing America’s Endless Infrastructure Mess

Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey (Photo: Andrew Kazmierski/Dreamstime)
Philip Howard has a solution to the endless delays surrounding infrastructure projects.

Sensing that his Scottish enemies had blundered at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, Oliver Cromwell said, “The Lord hath delivered them into our hands.” Philip K. Howard, were he the exulting type, could rejoice that some of his adversaries have taken a stand on indefensible terrain. Because the inaccurately named Center for American Progress has chosen to defend the impediments that government places in its own path regarding public works, it has done Howard the favor of rekindling interest in something he wrote in 2015.

A mild-mannered Manhattan lawyer of unfailing gentility and civility, Howard is no fire-breathing Cromwell. Rather, he is a combination of Candide and Sisyphus, his patient optimism undiminished by redundant evidence that government resists commonsensical legal and regulatory reforms of the sort he pushes up the mountain of bureaucracy when not serving as senior counsel at the white-shoe law firm of Covington & Burling.

In September 2015, Howard, founder and chair of the reform-advocacy group Common Good, published the paper “Two Years Not Ten Years: Redesigning Infrastructure Approvals.” In it, he argued that time is money, and that America is wasting enormous amounts of both with an infrastructure approval system that is an “accident of legal accretion over the past 50 years”:

America could modernize its infrastructure, at half the cost, while dramatically enhancing environmental benefits, with a two-year approval process. Our analysis shows that a six-year delay in starting construction on public projects costs the nation over $3.7 trillion, including the costs of prolonged inefficiencies and unnecessary pollution. This is more than double the $1.7 trillion needed through the end of this decade to modernize America’s infrastructure.

The nation that built the Empire State Building in 410 days during the Depression and the Pentagon in 16 months during wartime recently took nine years just for the permitting of a San Diego desalination plant. Five years and 20,000 pages of environmental assessments and permitting and regulatory materials were consumed before beginning to raise the roadway on New Jersey’s Bayonne Bridge, a project with, as Howard says, “virtually no environmental impact (it uses existing foundations and right-of-way).” Fourteen years were devoted to the environmental review for dredging the Port of Savannah, which has been an ongoing process for almost 30 years. While faux environmentalists litigate against modernizing America’s electrical grid, transmission lines waste 6 percent of the electricity they transmit, which equals 16 percent of 2015 coal-power generation and is equal to the output of 200 average-sized coal-burning power plants. In 2011, shippers using the inland-waterway system of canals, dams, and locks endured delays amounting to 25 years. In 2012, the Treasury Department estimated that traffic congestion wasted 1.9 billion gallons of gasoline annually. Diverting freight to trucks because of insufficient railway capacity quadruples fuel consumption. And so on, and on.

Twenty months after Howard published his article, the CAP’s response shows how far we have defined efficiency down: It celebrates the fact that federal environmental statements average only 4.6 years. Actually, that would be bad enough if such reviews were all or even most of the problem. Actually, there are other kinds of reviews and other layers of government involved, as with the Bayonne Bridge — 47 permits from 19 federal, state, and local agencies.

Today’s governance is illuminated by presidential epiphanies (e.g., ‘Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated’).

The CAP says that “the principal restraint facing state and local governments contemplating megaprojects is money, not environmental review.” But, again, this ignores myriad other time-consuming reviews and the costs, in both construction and social inefficiencies, driven by lost time.

Today’s governance is illuminated by presidential epiphanies (e.g., “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated”). Barack Obama had one concerning infrastructure: “There’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.” This is partly because, as Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama says, America has become a “vetocracy” in which intense, well-organized factions litigate projects into stasis.

Intelligent people of goodwill can dispute, as the CAP rejoinder does, Howard’s cost–benefit calculations. But the CAP partakes of the hyperbole normal in today’s environmental-policy debates: It includes Howard among “hardcore opponents of environmental review” who “consider federal laws that protect the environment fundamentally illegitimate.” Even the title of the CAP’s response to Howard’s arguments for more pertinent and efficacious environmental reviews is meretricious: “Debunking the False Claims of Environmental Review Opponents.”

Opponents? Including Howard? Hardly. David Burge, who tweets as @iowahawkblog, satirizes this slapdash style of progressive argumentation:

“To help poor children, I am going to launch flaming accordions into the Grand Canyon.”

“That’s stupid.”

Why Do You Hate Poor Children?”

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