The Agenda

Mass-Produced vs. Bespoke

Lewis Lehe of Price Roads argues that the best way to tackle cost growth in infrastructure is to substitute mass-produced projects for bespoke projects:

A giant firm selling alike projects to thousands of governments really might profit from cutting costs and prices. For construction, this model is harder than it is for toys. Construction requires “boots on the ground” and hence local firms and hence monopolistic bidding and rent-seeking.

But given the surplus here is tremendous, I think someone will find a way to take a bite of it with lower costs. By surplus I mean not merely the profits in the construction industry but the immense societal gains of building more and better infrastructure…time saved, lives saved, stress reduced, communities beautified. We are already seeing tiny points of light in highway construction, through a field called “accelerated construction.” Here is a New York Times article about a bridge built out of pre-made parts in Massachusetts. Here is an FHWA site about the practice. I sincerely hope mass production of infrastructure proceeds apace.

Barry LePatner’s Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets and Too Big to Fall both make the case that there is a great deal of scope for moving the construction sector in the direction Lehe has in mind, particularly if public sector purchasing push for fixed-price contracting. LePatner envisions a construction sector driven by large, well-capitalized national and multinational firms that are better positioned to invest in research and development, and that rely far more heavily on accelerated construction. 

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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