According to a new report by Philip K. Howard of the Common Good Foundation, streamlining the approval process for new infrastructure projects could yield trillions of dollars in economic benefits over the next decade. I’m generally skeptical of over-the-top projections of this kind, but as Tracy Gordon and David Schleicher recently observed, there is no question that infrastructure projects in the U.S. are vastly more expensive than those in other rich market democracies, and the regulatory burden facing U.S. infrastructure projects is as plausible an explanation for why this is so as any. Roughly speaking, the approval process for major projects takes ten years. In Canada and Germany, it takes two years or less. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing many Canadians and Germans, and while I’ve found them perfectly charming and bright, they do not belong to some superior race of space aliens, who possess mysterious infrastructure secrets totally impenetrable to us Yankees. There is no reason why our approval process should take five times as long as theirs. Howard offers a roadmap for how we can close the gap. The short of it is that we need “a coherent hierarchy of authority in which accountable officials can can balance different regulatory interests,” which is to say we need a place where the buck stops.
The next time you hear a politician touting the benefits of increased infrastructure spending, please ask them what exactly they intend to do about the fact that so much of what we currently spend on infrastructure is wasted.