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Opinion
Noah Smith

The U.S. Has Forgotten How to Do Infrastructure

The nation once built things fast and cheaply. Now experts are puzzled why costs are higher and projects take longer than in other countries.
This is going to take a while.

This is going to take a while.

Photographer: Frank Polich/Bloomberg

As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias points out, the problem with high infrastructure costs is that they force us to debate the wrong things. If costs were reasonable, even skeptics would probably agree to fix roads and build better trains. But when the price of maintaining high-quality infrastructure is ridiculously high, the issue gets divided into two camps -- a pro-building contingent that advocates biting the bullet and overspending to maintain transportation networks, and an anti-building group that throws up its hands at the price tag. When this is the debate, the country loses either way, because it ends up either spending too much money or living with potholed roads and trains that never arrive.

The U.S. is in the grips of exactly this sort of dilemma. For some mysterious reason, the same mile of road or train track costs a lot more to build in the U.S. than in other rich countries like France or Japan. When it comes to trains, the disparity is particularly egregious. During the past few years, people who pay attention to this problem have catalogued a list of potential culprits. But none of these is really satisfying.