America's Expensive Infrastructure

The cost of building roads and transit projects has skyrocketed in the last 50 years, but the reasons behind the rise are complex.

Read Time: 2 minutes

July 7, 2021, 12:00 PM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Writing in Vox, Jerusalem Demsas questions the high cost of infrastructure in the United States. "Not only are these projects inordinately expensive, states and localities are not even attempting to build particularly ambitious projects. The US is the sixth-most expensive country in the world to build rapid-rail transit infrastructure like the New York City Subway, the Washington Metro, or the Chicago 'L.'"

Despite its complexity, this is an important question: "NYU researchers noted the massive economic stakes, pointing to studies that show that building dense urban transit networks could increase aggregate economic growth by roughly 10 percent." America's transit systems and highways are inordinately expensive to build, with the cost of one lane mile increasing five-fold between 1990 and 2008. According to research conducted by economist Leah Brooks, "states spent nearly three times as much to build a mile of highway in the 1980s as they did in the early ‘60s," indicating a trend toward higher and higher construction costs. When it comes to transit, the picture is equally bleak: a report from the Eno Center for Transportation found that "[o]n a per mile basis, America’s transit rail projects are some of the most expensive in the world." 

The reasons why prices are rising are unclear but "[economist Matthew] Turner explains that common theories like unions or the way we’re building roads or where we’re building them (for example, in more urban areas) are not supported by statistical evidence." According to Brooks, "judicial, statutory, and administrative changes — in particular the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970 — have led to increased power for citizens," which, while intended to prevent harmful actions, has often resulted in the ability of "wealthy individuals to exert their preferences over everyone else." 

Yet "America spends a relatively small amount of its GDP (1.5 percent) on public infrastructure, while the UK spends 2 percent, France 2.4 percent, and Australia 3.5 percent." The problem, writes Demsas, is that "the US is getting very little for what it builds." Collecting more data, reducing the bureaucratic red tape that slows projects down, and seeking examples from other countries can help "put the US on the path to a future with accessible, plentiful, and cost-efficient transit."

Monday, June 28, 2021 in Vox

Hyperloop

The Hyperloop’s Prospects Dim

The media is coming around to the idea that the hyperloop is not a near-term solution for the country’s transportation woes. It’s too little, too obvious, too late.

September 27, 2022 - James Brasuell

Suburban Homes

Where Housing Costs Are Falling Fastest

Although median home prices remain close to record highs in many cities, some of the country’s priciest metro areas are seeing home prices plummet.

September 23, 2022 - Bloomberg

Orange Line train pulling into station with one woman waiting to board in Boston, Massachusetts

When Transit-Oriented Development Is Missing the ‘Transit’

Cities, residents, and developers have a renewed interest in building more housing near transit stations—when they actually provide safe, reliable transit.

September 21, 2022 - Boston Globe

Runway and plane taking off at Paine Field, Everett, Washington

Will Snohomish County Light Rail Bypass the Airport?

Some county leaders rejected two proposed routes that would skirt Boeing and Paine Field, citing the area’s high potential for travelers and jobs.

September 30 - HeraldNet

Aerial view of small rural community in Kentucky with ild rolling hills and sparse development

Senate Bill Would Support Rural Tenants

With housing costs skyrocketing, a proposed bill would extend assistance and help preserve affordable rental housing in rural areas.

September 30 - The Daily Yonder

Rendering of Innovation QNS with landscaped open public space on corner and glass-clad building

2.7-Million-Square-Foot Astoria Project Approved

The development will include over 2,800 housing units and 2 acres of public open space.

September 30 - Urbanize New York

New Case Study Posted on HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

The World’s Leading Event for Cities

Smart City Expo World Congress

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.