Feb 12th 2012, 21:19 by N.B. | WASHINGTON, D.C.
America’s long and costly infrastructure projects
SALON‘s Will Doig had a nice piece last week riffing off a common theme: why does it take so long and cost so much for America to complete infrastructure projects when China seems to complete them in mere months for a fraction of the cost?
On Dec. 31, the Chinese capital opened a new subway line and greatly expanded two others. This year it plans to open four more. A total of eight new lines are under construction. The city started expanding the system in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, and has kept pushing forward ever since. In 2001 it had 33 miles of track. Today it has 231.Meanwhile, when you hear the completion dates for big U.S. transit projects you often have to calculate your age to figure out if you’ll still be alive. Los Angeles’s Westside subway extension is set to be finished in 2036. Just five years ago, New York’s Second Avenue Subway was supposed to be done by 2020, a goal that seems laughable now.
The sub-headline of Mr Doig’s story promises suggestions for dealing with this problem, but the actual article focuses more on explaining why infrastructure projects take so much longer in America than they do in China. Bureaucracy, lack of money, politics and potential interference with existing infrastructure are the most convincing explanations he offers, although mismanagement and America’s deeper concern for things like private property rights and working conditions surely play a role, too.
The Atlantic’s David Lepeska has some related thoughts on why New York’s Second Avenue subway line, which won’t be completed for years, is costing $1.7 billion per kilometre. He notes that such high-priced transport is not endemic in America: Washington, DC’s Silver Line is considerably cheaper per kilometre (partly because much of it is being built above ground) and light-rail projects in Minneapolis and Denver were comparative bargains.
Slate’s Matt Yglesias, meanwhile, argues that Mr Doig and others who compare New York’s subway costs with China’s are missing the point. “The real issue Americans should be pondering is why our big infrastructure projects are so much slower and more costly than comparable projects in Europe or Japan,” he writes. After all, “even expensive projects in big, old, rich cities like London and Amsterdam come in far cheaper than a New York subway project.”
This is indeed the right question to be asking, but the answers don’t come easily. American politicians often blame labour unions, but these are generally stronger in Europe than in the US. Benjamin Kabak, a blogger whom Mr Lepeska recommends, offers some theories. Alon Levy, a blogger whom we’ve linked to before, has a particularly interesting idea: he thinks the business culture and organisational structure of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority could be part of the problem. Mr Levy says the MTA’s in-house team managing infrastructure projects is probably too small and the agency could be too reliant on outside consultants.
I’ve always been an advocate of expanding public transport in America, and critics of the Second Avenue project and similar jobs too often ignore important metrics like costs per projected passenger. But there’s no doubt that America pays too much for its subway projects. There aren’t any easy answers, but pro-transport politicians and activists need to confront the problem, and journalists need to acknowledge it. It’s good to see people like Mr Levy and Mr Lepeska taking the first steps.