The other day I was late to dinner, but it wasn’t my fault. Traffic was backed up throughout the city of San Francisco, because chunks of concrete had started falling from the upper deck of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a particularly unusual occurrence — in 2016, the Bay Bridge was shut after concrete chunks began to fall from the walls of a tunnel. Nor are such issues limited to bridges — the $2.2 billion Transbay Transit Center was closed in late 2018 when cracks were discovered in the beams.
These little examples are the kind of incidents that one might expect to see in a developing country where things are built cheaply or badly. But California has ruinously high construction costs; Governor Gavin Newsom recently canceled most of the state’s high-speed rail plan after the price tag ballooned from $45 billion to $75 billion. And these problems aren’t limited to California; across the country, construction costs for both the public and private sectors have swelled as productivity has stagnated or fallen. It costs much more to build each mile of train in the U.S. than in heavily unionized France. No one seems to be able to put their finger on the reason — instead, the U.S. simply seems riddled with corruption, inefficient bidding, high land-acquisition costs, overstaffing, regulatory barriers, poor maintenance, excessive reliance on consultants and other problems. These seemingly minor inefficiencies add up to a country that has forgotten how to build. Unsurprisingly, much of the country’s infrastructure remains in a state of disrepair.