SoCal Rain Update: Almost a Wrap

First of all, I would like to apologize for single-handedly jinxing and ruining a banner water year for SoCal, with this closing paragraph to the last update:

The last 6 years are a reminder that for SoCal the faucet can turn on just as quickly as it turns off – and vice versa. The forecast for the next week or so is dry and in fact once, water year 1996-97, LA had no measurable rain between March 1 and the end of the water year. So now that I’ve sufficiently jinxed things, you’d better hope extra hard for some more drought relief this year!

While we managed to escape without nothing, all we have to show for March, April, and May is 0.49”, bringing the total for the water year 2016-17 to 18.99”. June through September, the end of the water year, has only brought more than 1” of rain 14 times out of 140 years of records, so let’s call this an almost wrap and see where this year stands.

Currently, downtown LA is at 18.99” of rain for the water year. This is about 4” greater than the yearly average, and well past any of the drought years. However, it’s a little short of the last good year, 2010-11. The strong El Niños of 1982-83 and 1997-98 have left us in the dust.


To put this year in context, here’s where it falls on a histogram of LA precipitation. Falling right into the 18”-20” bin, we can see that this year was indeed wetter than typical, but not a once-in-a-lifetime record breaker like northern California had.


The multi-year water trends show we are still in a multi-year precipitation drought condition, with the 5 and 6 year totals just barely above record lows. However, with WY 2011-12 (8.70”) and WY 2012-2013 (5.93”) falling out of the 6 and 5 year totals, respectively, for next year, hopefully those totals will continue to improve.


Looking at the distribution of LA rainfall, this year falls right around the 75th percentile. Again we can see that while this was a wet year, it was by no means into the rarefied territory up above about the 85th or 90th percentile. This was the 35th wettest year in LA, out of 140 on record. By comparison, the 4-year drought period 2012-2016 had three years in the driest 11 on record (2015-16 #11, 2013-14 #8, and 2012-13 #7).


Finally, we should note that while it is rare for southern California to get much rain between now and the end of the water year in September, it has happened 6 times. Most often this precipitation comes in September from tropical storm remnants, such as the 2.39” received in September 2015 from the remnants of Hurricane Linda. This improbable event alone bailed out water year 2014-15, which otherwise would have been only slightly better the rest of the 2011-16 drought years. Meanwhile, the only tropical storm to make landfall in California in the 20th century brought over 5” of rain in September 1939, causing severe flooding. So while this post is probably it for the year, there’s always a chance otherwise!

Why is New Housing in California So Expensive?

You probably had an answer to that before you even finished reading the question. But I’m willing to bet it’s not the whole answer. There are a lot of things that go into building housing, and California is a big place, so different things might matter more in different places.

If you’re reading this blog, odds are the first thing that came to your mind is zoning. In the already-dense built-up parts of LA and OC, zoning is indeed the most likely culprit, since it is simply illegal to build more housing on most of the land. But go further east, and there’s lots of land zoned for residential development, yet prices are still much higher than comparable locations in other states. Looking at this could help shed light on factors other than zoning.

The Inland Empire Should be as Affordable as Phoenix

Here’s a look at the cheapest offerings in the Inland Empire and in Phoenix from DR Horton, one of the biggest homebuilders in the US, and of the big builders operating in California, probably the most focused on trying to build entry-level homes.


The cheapest offering in Phoenix is $136k; in the IE, $264k, making the cheapest new construction in the IE almost twice as costly as Phoenix. That’s quite a difference. In terms of amenities, the IE does better than Phoenix – driveable to SoCal’s beaches, close to a bigger urban center in LA, closer mountains, better climate – but not enough to justify that margin. And it terms of wages, Phoenix passed the IE after the Great Recession and has seen substantial wage growth in the last two years, while IE wages have been stagnant. So not only are IE residents getting hit with higher housing costs; their wages aren’t keeping up. Small wonder that the Phoenix MSA was the fastest growing region of the country last year, adding 82,000 people.


Taking all of DR Horton’s projects in the IE and in Phoenix, plus projects from Pardee Homes (another entry level builder) in Riverside County to fill things out a little, here’s the cheapest house offered in each subdivision, plotted against distance from the bedroom community to the central city.


As we’d expect, housing gets cheaper the further we get from the central city. You might look at this and think that the IE could hit Phoenix levels of affordability another 20 miles out, but cheap housing that far from the center city wouldn’t really do much to help. People will commute from Buckeye to Phoenix; no one is commuting from Barstow to LA. (Note: the low-cost developments close to Phoenix are all in South Phoenix, a historically black and Latino neighborhood that faced all the systematic discrimination and disinvestment you’d expect.)

Replotting the data looking at the cheapest house offered in each subdivision against the size of the house is very revealing.


The smallest new houses in the IE are in the neighborhood of 1,600 SF (though I know KB Home has a project at 1,430 SF), while in Phoenix many project are around 1,250 SF and one is as low as 1,100 SF. This is counterintuitive to housing prices being higher and wages being lower in the IE; we’d expect to see smaller houses in the IE than in Phoenix. The incremental cost per square foot is not substantially different between the two regions, but IE housing developments appear to face structural issues that add about $100k to the cost of a house. The same issues are probably responsible for making small houses infeasible in the IE.

Now looking at the largest house offered in each subdivision, let’s plot the cost per square foot versus distance from the city center.


While there will always be variability between municipalities, the overall trend is what you’d expect – cost per square foot declines as you move further from the city. This is a proxy for how much people value being able to live closer to the center.

Finally, let’s look at cost per square foot versus house size.


The cheapest new construction in the IE is around $120/SF (though KB Home has a project in Victorville that hits $100/SF) while in Phoenix many projects are under $100/SF. Note that cost per square foot doesn’t seem very impacted by house size; this is because we’re looking across the whole region. Within a given subdivision, house prices per square foot are always lower for larger houses.

Why is IE Housing So Expensive?

I think this should prompt a deeper look at what goes into the cost of building housing in California. Starting from the bottom up, the inputs to housing are:

  • Land – the physical place where house is built
  • Zoning – rules that specify how many houses you can build on a piece of land
  • General Impact Fees – fees paid to a municipality or service district by all development, such as parks fees & school fees
  • Special District Fees – fees paid by development within a special district, commonly known as Mello-Roos fees in California
  • Materials – the physical products that make up a house, like wood and drywall
  • Building Code – the regulatory requirements that specify the details and quality of construction
  • Labor – the people who assemble the raw materials into a house
  • Soft Costs – the architects, engineers, planners, code consultants, & other professionals whose services are needed to design & permit the project
  • Carrying Costs – the interest on loans, the taxes on property, & other similar costs paid in the time between the purchase of the land & sale of the house


The most basic input to housing is having a place to build. Unlike in LA/OC, there’s still a lot of greenfield land in the IE that is zoned for residential development or has approved master plans. High housing costs should bring that land to market to be developed.

Via @FactChecker23, we have this set of price data for 46 metro areas, including home (total), structure, and land costs. Here are plots of total home cost and land cost for the IE and Phoenix.


Here is a plot of the difference between IE and Phoenix home prices, with a breakdown of the delta into structure costs and land costs.


With the exception of a strange jump in 2011 (that almost suggests a change in methodology of the underlying component data), the structure delta is remarkably stable throughout the housing bubble, Great Recession, and recovery. $20k to $30k of the price difference between the IE and Phoenix is in the physical structure itself. The large swings are driven entirely by land, with IE land prices rising higher than Phoenix during the bubble and recovery, and crashing to par during the recession.

This pattern suggests a structural issue with land availability. This could be due to second-order factors like CEQA, though as noted above there are many greenfield sites where master plans are already approved. However, another possibility is that in California, the inefficient property tax structure resulting from Prop 13 decreases the penalty for land speculation, because taxes do not keep pace with land values. In Arizona, property assessments increase with the value of the property and the increases are not capped like they are through Prop 13. Another possibility is that ownership of developable land in the IE is more concentrated, making collusion to drive up prices easier.


Zoning drives up the cost of housing by limiting the number of houses that the cost of land can be spread across. A detailed analysis of density and zoned capacity in the IE and Phoenix is well beyond the scope of this blog. However, as an example, consider the general plan of Buckeye, a growing suburb west of Phoenix with very affordable housing. Much of the city is zoned for 3-6 dwelling units per acre (du/ac), which is typical of “medium density” zoning found in many IE master plans.

General Impact Fees

General development impact fees are fees imposed by cities on new development that are intended to pay for the costs of providing public services to the new development. Again, a comprehensive review of general impact fees is beyond the scope of this blog.

However, like with land costs, the long shadow of Prop 13 means that basic structure of taxation and municipal finance in California lends itself to high development impact fees. Unable to reassess properties to true market value or increase the tax rate, and limited in their ability to assess fees by subsequent propositions, California cities increasingly rely on development fees to plug holes in municipal budgets. Young cities in the Inland Empire, such as Jurupa Valley and Menifee, as well as other inland cities that have annexed land in recent years, face additional budget shortfalls as a result of faulty city finance legislation passed by the state during the financial crisis. The convoluted system of state funding to municipalities is itself a legacy of Prop 13.

To take some example, the city I live in, Glendale, charges a fee of $18,751 per multi-family unit (page 115 of 146) and $21,828 per single-family unit for parks alone. That fee could easily be expected to add $100-$150/month to baseline rents. In the Inland Empire, cash strapped cities have driven total impact fees up as high as $65,000 per unit in Riverside County and $75,000 per unit in San Bernardino County – around 25% of the cost of some of the cheapest development.

Meanwhile, the city of Buckeye charges literally no parks fee on most new residential development. The sum of parks, library, streets, public safety, water, and wastewater fees ranges from about $10k in the lowest cost districts to $20k in the highest cost districts. Across Maricopa County in Surprise, the sum of fire, police, library, parks, general government, public works, water, and wastewater fees is similar, ranging from about $10k to $18k. Surprise charges a parks fee of $785 – less than 5% of what Glendale charges, despite Glendale being a major secondary central business district with a large commercial tax base and large sales tax generators.

Lastly, it should be noted that impact fees can be used outright as a way for NIMBYs to stop development, since higher fees will decrease construction.

Special District Fees

Special district fees, or community facilities districts, more commonly known as Mello-Roos fees in California, are additional property taxes assessed in special districts to fund improvements such as streets, water, drainage, schools, parks, and so on. Mello-Roos fees are assessed as parcel taxes, not based on real value, so the actual burden is much higher for lower value parcels. This encourages the development of larger, more expensive houses, because there is “more house” to spread the cost across. As far as I know, there’s no equivalent in Arizona.


The cost of materials fluctuates with both the supply of materials available and the demand for construction materials. While this could have national impacts, there is little reason to suspect the market for materials is so different between SoCal and Arizona that it would drive a regional difference in the cost of construction.

Building Code

Without doing much in the way of detailed investigation, we can say with some certainty that California’s building code has more stringent requirements. First, the seismic detailing required for safe construction in California should result in some increase in costs. Second, California has famously high standards for energy efficiency for new construction. It’s hard to say off-hand what the cost impact is, but these aren’t things we’d want to compromise on anyway.


California does appear to have higher construction labor costs than Arizona. Ideally, this would be a comparison between residential construction workers in the IE in Phoenix; however, data doesn’t seem to be available for residential construction, and I could only find California at the state level.


According to the NAHB, a single-family home generates 3 full-time jobs for a year. If IE labor costs were about $300/week higher than Phoenix, that would be almost $50,000 per house. However, builders should respond to higher labor costs by trying to use less labor, and higher-wage labor tends to be more efficient than low-wage labor. In addition, labor costs will scale with house size, so the impact of labor costs should be less on smaller houses.

This is a squishier thing to measure than land and impact fees, since there is no way to spread the cost of land out over more units than the zoning allows and no way to evade impact fees. Note that the NAHB’s estimate of average wages and salaries in building a single-family home is literally greater than the purchase price of the cheapest single-family construction in Phoenix. Finally, it should go without saying that driving down wages results in negative social outcomes in a way that decreasing the profits of land-owning rentiers  or reducing exorbitant impact fees does not.

Soft Costs

Soft costs – such as engineering, permitting consultants, architects, and so on – should vary more or less according to regulatory complexity, so if it is more difficult to permit new housing, higher soft costs would result.

Carrying Costs

Longer times between purchase of the land and sale of the home will result in higher carrying costs, both because of the additional interest that accrues over that time and the fact that longer lag times make projects riskier. An analysis of the impacts of this factor is well beyond the scope of this blog, but cities should do all they can to reduce the time frame and provide certainty in the permitting process.


There are many factors that drive the cost of building new housing. If California is serious about reducing the housing shortage in the state, it must look to and study regions that build new housing at lower costs, understand which factors are the largest cost drivers, and work to alleviate those factors that can be improved in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.

Four Southern Cities

This is way off topic, but back in March when the new Census population estimates came out, I tweeted about slow growth in Alabama and negative growth in Mississippi. I’m wondering why they aren’t part of the “new south”, generally taken to be fast growing Sunbelt cities like Charlotte and Atlanta. Why does Atlanta boom, but Jackson doesn’t? Many of the responses boiled down to “because it’s Mississippi” which is sort of circular logic.

I thought it would be interesting to compare population growth since 1860 in four southern cities: Jackson MS, Birmingham AL, Atlanta GA, and Charlotte NC. Since municipal boundaries in the US are illogical, often changing, and hard to trace, I’m using county level data, comparing the populations, based on the 2015 definitions of the metropolitan statistical area (MSA) for each city.

I also added an “Atlanta Redux” where I threw out the 9 counties (out of 29) in the Atlanta MSA that still, as of 2016, have not reached population 30,000. These counties are way out near the edge of the city and were only recently sprawled into the Atlanta MSA. Their inclusion in the regional population back to 1860 probably unfairly inflates Atlanta’s size at the outset of the Civil War, when counties 40 miles out would not have had much plausible connection to the city but still had some population. I’m including both the full MSA and the reduced version to let readers compare.


Even the redux version of Atlanta was the biggest city of the four in 1860. Not much divergence is seen between Birmingham, Atlanta, and Charlotte until after World War 2. Jackson appears to have always grown more slowly, though this fate would not have been at all obvious to an observer in 1880, when Jackson was over 50% larger than Birmingham.

Plotting the population on a logarithmic scale can help us see patterns more easily, as the runaway growth of Atlanta makes the others look flat by comparison.


Plotted this way, the post-World War 2 growth of Atlanta and Charlotte doesn’t look unusual; it just looks like a continuation of previous trends. Atlanta, especially the redux version, starts growing a little faster than Charlotte after the war.

More interesting is Birmingham, which grew very quickly for decades after the Civil War, going from about 60% of Jackson’s size in 1870 to 120% of it in 1890. Birmingham even passed Charlotte for a few decades, going from 40% of its size in 1870 to larger by 1910. An observer in 1930 might have expected Birmingham to surpass Atlanta in another 10-20 years, especially the redux Atlanta. Jackson, meanwhile, experienced a strong decade from 1870-1880, but never grew very quickly again.

After 1930, Birmingham, which had been the rising star, began to fade, and was surpassed by Charlotte by 1960. So, what happened to Jackson after 1880? And what happened to Birmingham in 1930? I’ve yet to find out.

Another way to look at this data is to look at the amount of growth in the central county (where the main city is located) and compare that to the growth of suburbs. Here’s the breakdown for these four cities, with the central county on the bottom of the graph.


It is interesting that in Birmingham and Jackson, the central county stopped growing when the MSA as a whole started growing more slowly. However, it’s important to not try to read too much into this – did the MSA grow slowly because the central county was being neglected, or did the central county stop growing because there wasn’t much growth to be accommodated anyway?

One unappealing answer is that there is simply a great deal of luck in these outcomes. Obviously it helps for the city to be well run, but there are many factors making a complex result, and sometimes you just get bad luck. This rudimentary look is obviously not enough to tell us much about why these cities grew at different rates, but if anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Census 2016: The Sunbelt Strikes Back

Just some short thoughts for now, perhaps more soon if time permits.

The Census Bureau released its 2016 county population estimates late last week, and the numbers show a reversion to the trends of the 1990s and early 2000s: Sunbelt suburbs are growing faster than legacy cities. Blame land use policies if you like (I sure will) but those are the facts.

If cities are not growing as fast as once thought, though, it hasn’t been to the benefit of rural areas. Small counties were disproportionately represented among counties that lost population. The table below shows the number of counties gaining or losing population by county size.


Of the 37 counties that had a 3% or greater population loss, 27 had population under 10,000 and 36 had population under 50,000. The only sizeable county to lose 3% or greater was San Juan County, NM, which lost -3.05% of its 2015 population of 118,701 and has lost over 11% of its population since 2010. It is the only county of over 100,000 people to lose anywhere near that much; the next closest was Cambria County, PA, which lost 6%.

Further, of the 456 counties that lost over 1% of their population, 424 had population of 50,000 or less. Only 3 had population over 200,000 (St Louis city, Baltimore city, & Muscogee County GA). Of the 45 counties with population of 1,000,000 or more, only 6 lost population: Cuyahoga OH (Cleveland), Wayne MI (Detroit), Cook IL (Chicago), Suffolk NY (Long Island), Allegheny PA (Pittsburgh), and St Louis MO (St Louis suburbs). Six had population growth over 2% (Mecklenberg NC, Travix TX, Hillsborough FL, Clark NV, Orange FL, and Wake NC).

In short, the census estimates reflect long-standing trends of rapid growth in the Sunbelt and stagnation in the Rust Belt.

It’s a little unfair to compare small counties and very large counties, because it’s easier to have a large percentage swing in a small county. For example, Los Angeles County has over 10 million people, and there are probably some communities of 10,000 therein that shrank. The graph below avoids this problem by showing the distribution of counties gaining and losing population for counties up to 500,000 people. As we can see, the distribution skews towards the negative side for counties with population under 50,000 and toward the positive side for counties with population above 50,000.


For counties with over 1,000,000 people, the fastest growing counties are all in the Sunbelt, dominated by places like NC, FL, TX, and NV. Perhaps the most impressive county was Maricopa AZ (Phoenix) which grew by almost 2% and over 80,000 people. The fastest growing was Wake NC with 2.43%.

In California, the fastest growing big county (population over 250,000) was Placer, in the Sacramento suburbs, with 1.64%. Unlike many counties, growth in Riverside County actually picked up last year, with 35,000 people or 1.48%. Riverside was also the only big county in California to have a large positive contribution from domestic migration. The negative domestic migration from California counties is shocking: more domestic migrants (75,168) left LA County than the two largest domestic migrant gaining counties combined – not coincidentally, Maricopa County with 43,189 and Clark County NV with 27,735.

There will surely be many takes on the meaning of this census data, but the simple take here is that this is just a triumph of people doing what they’re allowed to do. A lot of economic growth in the US is in the Sunbelt, so people are moving there, and they’re moving to suburbs because that’s what you’re allowed to build. As for why growth is in the Sunbelt, that’s a more complicated question. The structural reasons for the decline of rural counties and the continued stagnation of Rust Belt cities are beyond the means of this blog.

However, given California’s high and still-rising cost of housing, our story isn’t very complicated: the economy is pretty good and lots of people want to live here, but we don’t build enough housing to let them do it. High housing costs are hurting California, and the sooner we do something about it, the better.

Driverless Cars & Commute Times

One of many unknowns with driverless cars is what their impact on traffic will be. Boosters have predicted that driverless cars will reduce traffic by reducing the number of vehicles needed to serve travel demand and reducing following distances between cars. Detractors have predicted that these effects will be more than offset by latent demand for travel that will come out of the shadows when it gets easier to travel in a car, by being cheaper or less stressful, which will encourage people to travel more and longer distances.

We may be getting ahead of ourselves since we don’t know when true driverless cars will become available and achieve a large enough market share to have a big difference. However, it is worth considering what we can learn from differences in commuting time by travel mode.

The graph below presents the mean commute time for various travel modes for ten relatively large metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in the US. The data was compiled by Governing Magazine.


Just about all cities have mean drive alone commute times of 25-30 minutes, with Portland being the low at 24 minutes and DC the high at 32 minutes. Transit commute times are about 1.5 to 1.8 times as long as drive alone commute times, and commuter rail commute times are about 2.0 to 2.5 times as long. Commute times are remarkably consistent across MSAs. Interestingly, Riverside has the longest commuter rail commute time, which reflects its dual role as its own MSA and as LA/OC’s more distant suburbs.

Since many transit riders are captive riders, especially in places like LA and Riverside, perhaps it is best to focus on the comparison between commuter rail and drive alone, since many commuter rail riders are choice riders. The data strongly suggests that people are willing to put up with much longer commutes when they don’t have to drive the vehicle themselves, which would support the idea that people will increase their commute length if they can use driverless cars.

This data, from a 2009 Census report, aligns with that conclusion. Note that carpoolers, who have to drive some of the time but not all the time, are willing to put up with longer commutes than drive alone, but not as long as public transportation.


Driverless cars may be even more enticing than commuter rail, as there’s no inconvenience of having other passengers. On the other hand, unreliability caused by traffic may be a deterrent. The appeal of driverless cars will also be uneven, as certain types of work do not lend themselves very well to being done by oneself in a moving car. In addition, many people will not have the schedule flexibility to increase their commute; for example, if you have kids, you may not be able to or want to leave them in child care for a longer time every day. On the balance, though, it seems likely that if driverless cars become widespread, commuting times will get longer.

The End of Measure S is Just the Beginning

Yesterday, in a low turnout city primary election where the demographics of people that turned out to vote (older, whiter, homeowners) should have been as favorable as possible, voters in the city of Los Angeles soundly rejected Measure S. The NIMBY ballot initiative that would have worsened LA’s housing crisis failed 69-31, a greater than 2 to 1 margin.

It’s important to note how significant this vote was. This is the first time in nearly 50 years that opponents of development in Los Angeles have not gotten their way with planning and development ballot initiatives. Ever since the “environmentalist” candidates were elected to city council around 1970, we have been making it harder to build housing in LA. When they wanted downzoning in the first Westside community plans in the early 70s, they got it. When they wanted to kill the “Centers Plan”, they did. When they wanted to kill development on LA’s commercial boulevards, they passed Prop U in 1986, led by many of the same “environmentalists”. When they wanted to stop the Wilshire subway in its tracks and ban new subway construction, they did it with Prop A in 1998. When they didn’t like the new Hollywood Community Plan that allowed more density around the Metro Red Line, they got it tossed out in court. Last night that changed, and we should appreciate how significant that is.

The end of Measure S is just the beginning, though. It is undeniable that the status quo is not meeting the housing needs of the city or region. It is causing people to pay far too much for shelter. It is not working for many low-income neighborhoods, which suffer decades of disinvestment only to see a sudden rush of interest that causes displacement. While we took a big step towards not making things worse last night, we still have a long way to go to make them better.

Now is the time to capitalize on the positive momentum coming from the passage of Measure M, Measure HHH, and Measure H, and the failure of Measure S. The people of the region have shown their commitment to expanding transit, providing desperately needed housing and services to the homeless, and rejecting an exclusionary view of Los Angeles. When they look back, we look forward.

Let’s take that energy and build a positive view for the future of Los Angeles that we know we can achieve if we work together. There are people all across the region that believe in LA and want to make it a city that is welcoming and provides opportunity to everyone.

If you are interested in helping develop and build that future for LA, I encourage you to check out Abundant Housing LA, because we really want it to be a group that helps advance the housing interests of everyone in the region. If you’re worried about the slow pace of building in LA, we want to hear from you. If you’re worried about displacement, we want to hear from you. If you’re worried about building more affordable units, we want to hear from you. If you’re worried about providing enough housing for everyone in LA in any way, we want to hear from you. Let’s work together and help LA provide opportunity for everyone, and be the city of the future again.

Why Are There No Shovel-Ready Projects?

A recent Bloomberg article raises questions about the ability of the Trump Administration to execute a big infrastructure plan due to a lack of shovel-ready projects. Personally, my doubts are at a higher level: Republicans are riven by division on whether they should back an infrastructure plan at all, and Trump is destroying any chance he had to win Democratic votes by spending all his political capital on racist immigration policies that are hugely unpopular with the Democratic base.

However, perhaps it’s an interesting question why there are few shovel-ready projects. While conventional wisdom holds that environmental review prevents the US from doing big infrastructure projects, other developed nations in Europe and Asia seem to get things done, and one presumes they have established environmental laws as well. Projects can get held up for years by lawsuits on the adequacy of environmental studies, but the federal and state governments can always exempt projects from environmental review if they want to anyway.

Some more realistic causes are as follows:

  • Design takes time. A large project will be in design for over a year before construction can start. I recently worked on a moderately complex project where we were in design for 18 months before construction started, and that was rushed. You can throw more resources at design, but at some point this is to little avail, since the constraints become things like allowing the owner time to review submittals and providing adequate time for coordination between design disciplines. If you add in 6-12 months for the government to pass a funding bill, and 12 months or so for environmental review, it is pretty easy to see how you could not make it to construction before the sun sets on the political administration that came up with the infrastructure plan.
  • An obvious follow-up question is why it should matter if the political administration changes. I’m not sure how this compares with other countries, but different administrations in the US often have very different priorities. A Republican administration may cancel plans for transit projects that have not yet made it very far into construction, such as ARC in New Jersey. A Democratic administration may not be interested in continuing plans to build rural freeways that generate little economic activity. In some cases, such as some FTA funding, you’re not allowed to finish the design until you have funding identified for construction and operations, which means the design won’t be done when the infrastructure funding plan comes along.
  • It’s hard to just complete a design, put it on the shelf, and dust it off when the funding shows up. Depending on how long it’s been, the design may be out of date and no longer comply with current design standards and codes. The existing conditions in the field may have changed, necessitating new survey and redesign. The environmental permitting may expire and require a new analysis.

In other words, the political time frame is often too short to accomplish a large project. The long delay in completing the Bay Bridge East Span replacement, the example cited in the Bloomberg article, was almost entirely due to the political machinations of two mayors (Willie Brown and Jerry Brown) and two governors (Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger). Caltrans’ original proposal, derided as a freeway on stilts, could have been completed decades sooner and at lower cost, had anyone cared to build it.

This is actually a strength of the self-help measures passed by voters in California counties, such as LA’s Measure R or Orange County’s Measure M2. These measures frequently set the agenda of projects or types of projects to be delivered, and provide a rough timeline for implementation, on a long enough horizon that there is continuity through election cycles.

All of that said, the United States has fairly well-developed existing infrastructure that needs a lot of upkeep. Routine maintenance work, such as resurfacing roads, rebuilding sidewalks, and replacing water lines, is usually exempt from environmental review and requires minimal design work. I think a lot of people in LA would appreciate a program that focused on resurfacing streets in poor condition and repairing broken sidewalks.

At a national level, it is going to continue to be a struggle to deliver large projects if the planning horizon never extends beyond the next election. But there’s a lot of basic maintenance we could be doing as well – things that are plenty shovel-ready, if you want to build them.