The big hurdle for US national infrastructure? Soaring project costs

Boston before the Big Dig, which solved everything, obviously. Image: Getty.

The talk these days of a major infrastructure bill passing through US Congress is both welcome and encouraging for American commuters and businesses. But regardless of how much money Congress decides to spend on sorely needed projects, the debate is sadly lacking in strategies to address the astronomical cost of infrastructure projects in the United States.

Our public debate should focus squarely on the question of how to maximise infrastructure investment by reducing the overall cost. These high costs are huge impediment to getting anything done.

It cannot be understated that this is a major problem. If America’s policymakers can tackle this problem and reduce costs and reduce project delivery timelines, more beneficial projects will happen. If more projects happen, American commuters and businesses get real traffic relief.

So how do we get the best bang for the buck?

Under the normal project delivery process a highway can take up to 10 years to deliver. For transit projects, the process can take up to 15 years.

Let’s not kid ourselves: the process Congress has allowed to be created is both fiscally and environmentally irresponsible. But there’s enough blame to go around.

According to the environmental community, transit and toll lanes reduce congestion and fossil fuel emissions. This is true. The catch is that environmentalists want to study every project for a dozen years. A transit project should not take that long.

Additionally, the conservatives in Congress don’t want to change the policy because it’s politically advantageous for them to talk about how cumbersome the process is. Yet taxpayers bear the cost of the environmental review (NEPA) process. There are ways to trim this process, as well as the multi-agency duplications for reviews that will save time and money, while not harming the environment.

A transit project planned today may be projected to cost $1bn. But by the time the project gets through the process, it could end up costing four or five times that. Over 10 to 15 years, the cost of materials, land, and labour increases – and will only continue to do so at an accelerated pace now that unemployment is low and wages and interest rates are rising.

Furthermore, when a state transportation department or a metropolitan planning agency announces a proposed project or potential roadway alignment, I have seen the private sector advocate and achieve zoning changes to increase the value of the land in the event government will need it for the road. I have seen private individuals and companies pull building permits and construct something, only to make sure there is a negotiated settlement with the transportation department at a much higher price. What the taxpayers and conservatives don’t understand is that added cost comes from the same taxpayer dollars they always claim to be protecting. In fact, they are as much a part of the hustle as anyone.

Let’s end the hustle. We should shorten the delivery timeline and be more responsible with tax dollars. Everyone loves to complain about $5,000 toilet seats or $2,000 hammers at the defense department, but no one complains about the $2bn increased in project costs due to the project delivery process. Let’s start to give a damn.

The cost is astronomical and out of control. While we need to protect our planet and our ecosystems, America needs a major systemic overhaul for that to happen.

If we wanted more environmentally friendly transit projects to happen, we ought to be vigilant fiscal hawks. As it stands today, it is environmentally irresponsible to sit idle while transit projects take more time and cost more money than highway projects. If we do nothing, the status quo incentive will be to build more road projects because they’re cheaper.

The US government has already studied these costs. I was a member of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, which published its report in 2008. Included in that report were recommendations, including a section on “speeding project delivery”.

The report notes that

“to reduce overall project delivery times for major transportation projects, the time to complete environmental reviews must be shortened, in conjunction with other measures that address conventional strategies for implementing projects once they clear environmental review.”

We listed a series of recommendations that are still pending. They unfortunately did not make it into the latest transportation authorisation bill, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.

Project delivery times remain anything but “FAST”. Congress can and should reform the project delivery process so that American taxpayers can get the best value possible under a federal infrastructure plan. It can and should be done.

Tom Skancke is chief executive of TSC2 Group, a management consulting firm, and is executive director of the Western Regional Alliance, an association of western transportation and metropolitan planning organisations. This article reflects his own views, not those of the Nevada Department of Transportation.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.