Energy & Environment

Keystone Cops: How Democrats Kill American Infrastructure

Construction workers walk in a tunnel of the East Side Access project beneath New York City in 2015. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Democrats favor improving infrastructure as long as it takes longer and costs more.

Why can’t the United States build or repair infrastructure on a par with countries in Europe or Asia? Why can’t we have all the nifty new airports, bridges, and trains that seem to spring up overnight in other parts of the world? The answer, in one word, is Democrats. Two groups that are virtually owned-and-operated subsidiaries of the Democratic party retard infrastructure progress here. One is labor unions, and the other is environmental activists.

The latest example of the absurd reach of the latter is to be found in the U.S. district court of Montana, where Obama-appointed Judge Brian M. Morris halted completion of the Keystone XL pipeline once again, ruling that President Trump’s permit to grant the bid by TransCanada Corp. to finish the pipeline that would transport oil from Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska “hadn’t considered all impacts as required by federal law,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

The first “final environmental review” approving construction was released by Hillary Clinton’s State Department seven years ago, concluding the impact on global warming would not be severe. Another “final environmental review,” also approving the project, was released in 2014 by John Kerry’s State Department, which also foresaw little impact on global warming. Floundering for any excuse to block the pipeline, Judge Morris concern-trolled members of the energy industry by wondering whether the project would be profitable enough given fuel prices. That is for oil guys to worry about, not judges. One interested party observed that Keystone would have “very little impact” on U.S. gas prices. That observer was the person who gave Judge Morris his job, Barack Obama.

The problem is larger than the endless delays on Keystone, though. Because of what Robert Kagan dubbed “adversarial legalism,” routine public improvements are tied up like Gulliver by the Lilliputians with a thousand environmental reviews. In a given year, some 350 Environmental Impact statements and 50,000 Environmental Assessments are being produced by the federal government. Meanwhile individual states and municipalities duplicate these requirements by slathering on their own regulations. Let it not be said that the U.S. doesn’t produce anything: We are the masters of paperwork. Progressive columnists keep wondering why we can’t be more like China and get things done; then they go out to brunch with their human-roadblock friends, all those litigators from the NRDC and Greenpeace and all the other economic reactionaries who spend their lives on lawsuits to stop American progress.

A routine dredging project in Oakland Harbor to accommodate larger ships that began in the 1970s wasn’t completed until the mid 1990s due to legal challenges. Four environmentalist challenges gummed up a water-desalination plant, urgently needed in dry San Diego, which began seeking permits in 2003 but didn’t open until 2015. Simply raising New Jersey’s Bayonne Bridge roadway a bit to allow taller ships through — a move that had almost no environmental impact since it was merely an adjustment of an already-built site — proceeded only after five years of review and 20,000 pages of environmental studies.

In California, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) layers atop federal requirements thick, warm blankets of additional paperwork such as state Environmental Impact Reports. Such reports have to delve into more than 100 factors for assessment. Any party (even a business competitor or a union seeking better terms) can file suit to halt a project under CEQA and can do so anonymously, even though only 5 percent of these nuisance suits result in overturning a project.

European and Asian governments usually don’t have these redundant layers of city-state-federal bureaucracies. Their ideas get proposed and approved and built in the time it takes us to mull the environmental impact. And their stuff gets built much more cheaply. A 2011 study by Israeli mathematician Alon Levy found that a mile of subway track in Japan or continental Europe typically costs $200 million to $450 million per mile. In Vancouver, the Canada Line, a 40-percent underground rail system, in a densely populated area with more than one station per mile, cost $130 million per mile.

London is a different story: the underground Jubilee Line extension of the Tube, which opened in 1999, cost $640 million per square mile. The gargantuan London-centered Crossrail project (73 miles, 41 stations), most of which is above ground, began construction in 2009 and is scheduled to be finished next year at a cost of about $325 million per mile.

In New York City, the Second Avenue Subway, a two-mile, three-station extension of an existing line, took ten years and cost $2.4 billion per mile. I can’t stress that b hard enough. It costs ten times as much to build subway track here as it does in some other rich countries. Yet the story gets worse. The East Side Access project, built to spare Long Island residents wishing to travel to the East Side of Manhattan the arduous chore of traveling one mile from Penn Station to Grand Central, cost an astonishing $3.5 billion per mile, according to the New York Times, which calls that “seven times the average cost in other cities across the world.” Construction began in 2007 and hopes to wrap up in 2022. (It won’t.)

The American infrastructure policy is: Work slowly and charge more. New York City’s Sandhogs union, which is critical to such projects, costs an astounding $111 per hour in wages and benefits according to the Times investigation. A task that could be done in Madrid with nine workers requires 24 in New York City, according to an estimate by Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s head of Capital Construction, Michael Horodniceanu. An investigation of East Side Access construction found that roughly 200 of 900 workers on the underground project were being paid to do nothing.

Huge price tags are not unique to New York City; the Northeast in general is beset by staggering union costs. In Boston, a simple Green Line extension of the light-rail network that is being built on the surface, not underground, is set to cost some $530 million per mile. Boston’s epic Big Dig project cost many times more than similar projects in Madrid and Paris.

Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats say they want an infrastructure bill. President Trump seems amenable, but Republicans in Congress traditionally are hesitant to approve gargantuan spending. Let any infrastructure bill be contingent on cost-cutting reforms such as public-private partnerships. Otherwise the next one will have as little to show for its price tag as President Obama’s infamously non-shovel-ready 2009 stimulus.

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