Three Challenges to Building Big Infrastructure in America

How complicated zoning and permitting, slow construction, and a dearth of certain skills in the public sector cause delays and increase the cost of U.S. infrastructure projects.

January 25, 2022, 9:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Wide shot of bridge overpasses under construction at the intersection of GA 400 and I-285 on July 22, 2019 in Atlanta, GA.

blulz60 / Shutterstock

"It is one thing to fill potholes; another to fundamentally change the way we do business," writes architect Moshe Safdie about the recently passed federal infrastructure bill. Will the $1.2-billion investment actually improve our obsolete and outdated infrastructure, or just fund studies that will leave implementation to the future?

According to Safdie, the U.S. faces three challenges to its capability to push forward major infrastructure projects. The first is our "convoluted" permitting, zoning, and community input process, which can cause major delays and cost increases. Safdie calls for a more centralized authority that would counterbalance local concerns with broader goals.

A second challenge facing U.S. infrastructure is the glacial speed of construction, which drains both funding and public support for seemingly endless projects. In other countries, writes Safdie, construction projects use multiple shifts to operate around the clock and pre-fabricated parts to speed up construction and reduce disruption to neighbors.

The third major obstacle, in Safdie's view, is a lack of "conceptual and engineering creativity" in the U.S. public sector. Safdie recommends boosting public-private partnerships like the 1990s-era Design Excellence Program or the COVID-19 vaccine development effort, which harnessed public resources and private skills to design and implement public projects quickly and effectively.

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