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.

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