The deadly Amtrak derailment on Tuesday is just another symptom of Congress’s refusal to address the United States’ decrepit infrastructure. Amtrak is notoriously underfunded, with a huge capital expenditure backlog. While the cause of the crash is not yet determined, even engineer error may have been avoided if Amtrak had implemented “positive train control” to restrict dangerous speeds. But almost every category of U.S. infrastructure is in a dangerous or obsolete state — roads and bridges, power generation and transmission, water treatment and delivery, ports and air traffic control. There is no partisan divide on what is needed: a national initiative to modernize our 50- to 100-year-old infrastructure. The upside is as rosy as the status quo is dire. The United States can enhance its competitiveness, achieve a greener footprint and create upward of 2 million jobs .
So what’s the problem? Modernizing infrastructure requires money and permits. Congress needs to create a long-term funding plan and radically reduce the red tape that drives up costs and ensnarls projects in their infancy. Instead, Congress uses short-term fixes to get past the looming insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund. Congressional efforts to cut red tape are similarly weak .
Congress pretends that not spending money is prudent. But continued delay is not only dangerous but also costly. The longer we wait, the more our infrastructure will cost. Because of decades of deferred maintenance, the bill for repairing the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City, for example, was inflated tenfold in recent years, to $800 million.
Merely avoiding inefficiencies more than pays for new infrastructure — returning $1.44 on each dollar invested, according to Moody’s. Delays due to infrastructure bottlenecks cost about $200 billion per year on railroads, $50 billion per year on roads and $33 billion on inland waterways . America’s antiquated power grid wastes 7 percent of the electricity it transmits, or about $30 billion worth of electricity annually.
Funding won’t build much, however, without red-tape reform. Congress funded an $800 billion stimulus plan in 2009, but five years later only $30 billion had been spent on transportation infrastructure because no government agency had authority to approve projects. As President Obama put it, “There’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.”
Red tape can consume nearly a decade on major projects. For example, raising the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge near the Port of Newark, a project with virtually no environmental impact (it uses existing foundations and right of way), required 47 permits from 19 agencies, and a 5,000-page environmental assessment. The approval process took five years. In San Diego, permitting for a desalination plant began in 2003 and was completed, after 14 legal challenges, in 2012. It will start producing fresh water this year — 12 years later.
Congress did not deliberately create this bureaucratic jungle. The jungle just grew, like kudzu. Environmental review statements are supposed to be 150 to 300 pages, according to federal regulations, and focus on important trade-offs. Nor was the proliferation of permits by design. As government got bigger, it naturally organized itself into silos, each with its own rules and territorial instincts. Many requirements are senseless in context — like requiring a survey of historic buildings within a two-mile radius of the Bayonne Bridge, even though the project touched no buildings.
Just as conservatives act as if funding infrastructure is imprudent, liberals in Congress defend multiple layers of review. Red tape is not the same as good government. It harms the environment as well as driving up costs. The wasted electricity from the obsolete power grid is the same as the output of 200 average coal-burning power plants — causing an extra 280 million tons of carbon to spew into the air each year. Delays in permitting new wind farms and solar fields and connecting transmission lines similarly result in extra carbon emissions. Traffic bottlenecks create exhaust fumes.
Infrastructure is unavoidably controversial. There is always an impact and always a group that is affected more than others. A wind farm or transmission line spoils views and can affect bird populations. A desalination plant produces a briny byproduct. Modernizing a port will disturb the ocean floor and increase traffic in nearby neighborhoods.
But delay on new infrastructure is far worse than these unavoidable side effects. An inefficient port reduces competitiveness and drives shipping elsewhere, requiring goods to be trucked longer distances. Delay in a desalination plant further depletes aquifers. All public choices involve tradeoffs. No amount of law can avoid that reality.
What is needed for infrastructure approvals is basic: Congress must create clear lines of authority to make decisions. Environmental review and public input are important, but such countries as Germany and Canada achieve this in two years, not 10. They do this by giving responsibility to particular agencies to make practical choices that balance competing public interests — within strict time frames. For example, an environmental official should have responsibility to draw lines on how much review is sufficient. Similarly, one agency should have overriding permitting authority, balancing the concerns of other agencies and departments.
The opportunity here is transformational. With a two-year process and adequate funding, the United States can modernize its infrastructure at far less cost and with huge environmental and economic benefits. This requires Congress to make deliberate choices in the public good.
Philip K. Howard, a New York-based civic leader, author and lawyer, is chairman of the social- and legal-reform nonprofit organization Common Good. He's the author of the best-sellers The Rule of Nobody and The Death of Common Sense.