America Once Knew How to Build Infrastructure


The country will be lucky if the USD 1.2 billion Washington is spending leads to any new bridges, tunnels or major roads

By guest authors Mark Penn and Andrew Stein from the Opinion/Commentary Department of the Wall Street Journal.


March 6, 2023


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The Brooklyn Bridge cost USD 300 million to build in today’s money. The price tag for the Golden Gate Bridge was USD 750 million. Based on those numbers, the recent USD 1.2 trillion infrastructure package should be enough to build roughly 4000 Brooklyn Bridges or 2000 Golden Gates. If you believe that’s going to happen, we’ve got a bridge in Florida to sell you.

The sad reality is that the country will be lucky if any new bridges, tunnels or major roads get built. The numbers are huge: USD 110 billion for roads and bridges, USD 66 billion for Amtrak, USD 39 billion for public transit, USD 25 billion for airports. But watch where that money actually gets allocated in the next few years. So far most of it has gone entirely to renovation, not innovation. Environmental rules, endless delays, inflation, work rules and politics all play a role in ensuring that lots of pockets get lined but few new projects move forward.

On Jan. 31, President Biden visited New York to announce 300 million in federal money toward a replacement rail tunnel under the Hudson River—one phase of a larger renovation that will cost an estimated USD 30 billion and be completed in another 12 years. By contrast, the original Lincoln Tunnel was built in less than four years in the 1930s and cost USD 1.6 billion in today’s dollars.

Despite advances in engineering, building methods and computers, one rail tunnel repair now costs 20 times what a brand-new tunnel cost a century ago and takes three times as long, if it ever happens. Construction timelines are measured in decades rather than years. Had the projects of the New Deal been done this way, they would have stretched into World War II and beyond.

There’s no indication the new infrastructure package will put efficiency over politics and change the dysfunctional status quo. What should be vital investments in America’s future are going to be treated as political ping-pong balls. Most of the money will likely be frittered away on make-work projects, paving and repaving old roads. How many new highway dividers does America really need? Or shopping malls in airports?

The permitting process is broken. Environmental-impact studies are a racket, delaying projects for as long as five years over insignificant issues. Costs are increasing because of endless litigation and inflation. Contracting and labor rules have become so burdensome that no private enterprise could operate under them.

Look at America’s trains. California’s dream of a high-speed rail line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco continues to languish. The original contractor pulled out in 2011 because of political dysfunction, decamping for Morocco, where it built a bullet train that started operating in 2018. For decades New York’s Penn Station renovation was stalled by multiple parties—the U.S. Postal Service didn’t want to give up its building for the expansion, and Madison Square Garden’s owner refused to budge, to name a few spoilsports. One bright spot is the opening of a train in Florida connecting Miami to Palm Beach and soon to Orlando. But it was built by a private-equity firm, not government, a throwback to the days when private companies built major bridges.

America desperately needs new infrastructure. Train freight left on old tracks can become increasingly dangerous, as the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, demonstrates. We may not need post offices anymore, but we will need a new electrical grid, upgraded ports, safer airports and better tunnels and bridges—especially as we embark upon a new era of self-driven vehicles.

If we just keep throwing money at infrastructure without giving priority to efficiency, we will get highway dividers that cost USD 50000 a foot but no more of the awe-inspiring bridges, roads and tunnels that once defined American innovation.

USA Knew

Mr. Penn was a pollster and adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, 1995-2008. He is chairman of the Harris Poll and CEO of Stagwell Inc. Mr. Stein, a Democrat, served as New York City Council president, 1986-94.