Why it takes so long to build a bridge in America

The Wall Street Journal on Saturday published an essay by Common Good Chair Philip K. Howard on the frustratingly inefficient process for approving infrastructure projects. This inefficiency takes away jobs and commerce:

Building new infrastructure would enhance U.S. global competitiveness, improve our environmental footprint and, according to McKinsey studies, generate almost two million jobs. But it is impossible to modernize America's physical infrastructure until we modernize our legal infrastructure. Regulatory review is supposed to serve a free society, not paralyze it.

The problem? A hopelessly bureaucratized environmental review process delays essential projects for years, in some cases a decade. Howard writes:

The environmental review statement for dredging the Savannah River took 14 years to complete. Even projects with little or no environmental impact can take years. Raising the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge at the mouth of the Port of Newark, for example, requires no new foundations or right of way, and would not require approvals at all except that it spans navigable water. Raising the roadway would allow a new generation of efficient large ships into the port. But the project is now approaching its fifth year of legal process, bogged down in environmental litigation.

Building and maintaining a modern infrastructure--and the jobs that come with it--requires serious reform of the environmental review process. Howard suggests that we look to other countries' experience:

Canada requires full environmental review, with state and local input, but it has recently put a maximum of two years on major projects. Germany allocates decision-making authority to a particular state or federal agency: Getting approval for a large electrical platform in the North Sea, built this year, took 20 months; approval for the City Tunnel in Leipzig, scheduled to open next year, took 18 months. Neither country waits for years for a final decision to emerge out of endless red tape.

For more ideas about improving the infrastructure approval process, take a look at our issue brief. And you can read the rest of Howard's article here.