Many states shun or delay major public works projects
Officials point to cost overruns, shaky economy
NEWARK — New Jersey’s governor wants to kill a $9 billion-plus train tunnel to New York City because of runaway costs. Six thousand miles away, Hawaii’s outgoing governor is having second thoughts about a proposed $5.5 billion rail line in Honolulu.
In many of the 48 states in between, infrastructure projects are languishing on the drawing board, awaiting the right mix of creative financing, political arm-twisting, and timing to move forward. And a struggling economy and a surge of political candidates opposed to big spending could make it a long wait.
Has the nation that built the Hoover Dam, brought electricity to the rural South, and engineered the interstate highway system lost its appetite for big public works projects? At a time when other countries are pouring money into steel and concrete, is the United States unwilling to think long-term?
“My sense is things have changed,’’ said Andrew Goetz, a University of Denver professor and a specialist on transportation policy. “People now tend to see any project as a waste of money, and that’s just wrong.’’
“I call it the Bridge to Nowhere syndrome,’’ he added. “High-profile projects get publicized and they become a symbol for any infrastructure project that’s out there, and even the ones that are justified get tarnished by the same charge.’’
The so-called Bridge to Nowhere would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to connect one Alaskan town to an island of 50 residents. It figured in the 2008 presidential election when former Alaska governor Sarah Palin was criticized for initially backing the plan, which was eventually scrapped.
The other cautionary tale of the past few years is Boston’s Big Dig, the highway and tunnel project that was originally envisioned at less than $3 billion and wound up costing nearly $15 billion.
The Big Dig has made it far easier for motorists to get to and from Boston’s Logan Airport, and it eliminated a noisy and unsightly elevated highway that cast a shadow over some of the city’s neighborhoods. But construction was plagued by years of delays, alleged corruption, and shoddy workmanship that later resulted in the death of a motorist in a ceiling-panel collapse.
A report this month by the US Treasury Department and the Council of Economic Advisers paints a picture of a country dissatisfied with the state of the nation’s aging infrastructure and in favor of improvements, but not necessarily eager to commit the dollars to fix it.
Standing in New York’s Penn Station on Thursday in front of a sign touting the proposed tunnel, commuter Bill Mischell of Plainsboro, N.J., gave voice to those conclusions.
“You could make the argument that it will make New Jersey a better place to live, but you also have to weigh it impartially against the huge cost,’’ Mischell said. “The state’s in pretty significant financial trouble, and the money’s got to come from somewhere.’’
Infrastructure spending in the United States stands at 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product — half what it was in 1960 — compared with approximately 9 percent in China and 5 percent for Europe, according to the government report.
“During recessions it is common for state and local governments to cut back on capital projects — such as building schools, roads, and parks — in order to meet balanced budget requirements,’’ the report concluded. “However, the need for improved and expanded infrastructure is just as great during a downturn as it is during a boom.’’
The American Society of Civil Engineers calculates that the United States would need to spend an additional $1.1 trillion over the next five years to restore roads, bridges, dams, levees, and other infrastructure to good condition. In its latest report card, the engineering society gave the nation’s public works a “D’’ grade.
“Somehow we believe if we ignore it, it will go away,’’ said Blaine Leonard, the society’s president. “And it won’t. We have to stop hitting the snooze button on this problem.’’
He said now is a good time to spend money on infrastructure because construction companies in this weak economy are hungry for work and the costs are relatively low as a result.