Why We Can’t Build Infrastructure Like We Used To

Regulatory burdens just as much to blame as political gridlock

Hardly a week goes by when we don’t see an article or news story about America’s crumbling infrastructure and utilities. Contractors say it’s bad and getting worse; so do engineers, universities and think tanks. People experience it too, driving on bad roads, dealing with water main breaks and unreliable utilities. And it upsets nearly everyone to see America’s infrastructure falling apart.

The blame for the lack of infrastructure improvements is often laid at the feet of political gridlock, or misplaced priorities, or just plain government incompetence. But there’s more to it than that.

Since the U.S. built the Golden Gate Bridge, Hoover Dam, interstate highway system and most of our water and wastewater utilities, the country has changed dramatically, and these changes profoundly affect our ability to build or improve infrastructure and utilities, especially large projects.

The number of regulations that need to be met, the time it takes to comply with these regulations, and the ability of these regulations to stymie projects have all increased over time. Environmental reviews and activism can shut down projects or delay them interminably. A litigation culture jeopardizes any project that doesn’t yield high benefits and near-zero risks. Add to this city and state pension obligations that make financing large infrastructure investments out of reach for many governments.

These developments have dramatically increased the amount of money and time it takes to build infrastructure and utility projects. So much so that today we’d be unable to build the iconic projects that once defined the American can-do spirit.

The bemoaned political gridlock is a symptom of these changes rather than the cause of our infrastructure-and-utilities woes. Until we recognize this, it will be hard to make meaningful progress.

Many argue that strict regulations, public pensions and legal recourse make America healthier, safer, greener and more equitable, but there are trade-offs to these perceived benefits. These factors contribute to our inability to build infrastructure and utilities like we used to.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.