The Enemies of American Infrastructure

Between 2008 and 2019, China opened up 33 high-speed rail routes, connecting 39 major cities along four north-south and four east-west main lines. The 18,000-mile network runs trains at an average speed of around 200 miles per hour. By 2030, the Chinese expect to double the mileage of their high-speed rail network by expanding to eight north-south and eight east-west main lines. In less than 20 years, the Chinese have completely transformed their rail transportation network.

This is typical for the Chinese. China is also building three new airports—offshore. Dalian along the north coast opposite the Korean Peninsula, Xiang’an on the central coast facing Taiwan, and Sanya off the coast of Hainan Island in the strategic South China Sea. All three airports are to be built to the highest international levels, with 12,000-foot runways able to accommodate the Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner. All three are built on “reclaimed land”—the Chinese intend to bulldoze a few mountains into the ocean and flatten them into runways. And all three, from start to finish, will be built in under 10 years.

China’s ability to construct major infrastructure quickly is beyond debate. The Three Gorges Project, the largest dam in the world, created a deep-water reservoir an astonishing 1,400 miles long. Its hydroelectric capacity of 22.5 gigawatts is the largest in the world. This massive construction project was done, from start to finish, in 12 years.

While China Builds, America Litigates

To argue that Americans don’t need high-speed rail, or massive new airports on ocean landfill, or yet another massive hydroelectric dam, is beside the point. Americans can’t do any big projects. 

A perfect example is the Keystone Pipeline, which, if it’s ever completed, will be capable of transporting 830,000 barrels of oil per day south from the tar sands of Alberta to existing pipelines in Nebraska. This pipeline has been tied up in permitting delays and litigation since 2008. Eleven years later, not one mile of pipeline has been built.

Even with aggressive support from the Trump Administration, will Keystone ever get built? Not if an army of environmentalist plaintiff attorneys have their way. According to a recent report by PBS, as soon as a judge dismissed the most recent lawsuit against Keystone, another lawsuit was filed. Another construction season has been lost, another year of delay. “Representatives of a half-dozen other environmental groups vowed to keep fighting in court and predicted the pipeline will never be built,” PBS reports.

Americans could build so much more, for less money, and in far less time, if balance were restored to the process of approving construction projects.

While Americans are divided over whether they support construction of the Keystone Pipeline, everyone supported quickly constructing towers to replace the World Trade Center towers lost in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. One may assume that in the aftermath of 9/11, designs, bids and permitting were fast-tracked, yet it took more than five years before construction began. Freedom Tower, the dazzling replacement to the Twin Towers, didn’t open until 2014, just over 13 years after the towers fell.

By contrast, the Empire State Building was built in 14 months. And while Freedom Tower undoubtedly is constructed to higher modern standards, the added time necessary to meet those by now should be offset by equally more advanced construction practices. A more current example would be the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. This megastructure, more than twice the height of Freedom Tower, was built in just under six years.

America’s inability to build anything big has almost nothing to do with the quality of American engineering, or the capabilities of America’s construction industry. The blame lies exclusively with American politicians, judges, government bureaucrats, and plaintiff attorneys. 

Nobody wants to throw away all environmental protections, but the process now in place of permit delays and litigation has paralyzed the nation. It has become extreme. Americans are wearing out infrastructure that was built decades ago. Thanks to permitting delays and litigation, the costs of replacements and upgrades are prohibitive.

President Trump, who made his billions in the construction business, has done as much as he possibly can to cut regulations on builders, but without support from Congress or the courts, change is incremental. 

In late 2017, when announcing regulations he was eliminating, Trump stood in front of two piles of paper. One set of stacks, barely reaching his knees, represented the federal regulations in place in 1960. The other set of stacks, over seven feet in height, represented the totality of federal regulations in effect today. These regulations, upheld and expanded by courts and bureaucrats, serving as fodder for their delays and extortionate demands, are the reason America can no longer build anything big.

Why Housing Is Unaffordable

Even housing starts are tied up in knots thanks to federal regulations, although differing regulatory environments in various states make a major difference. In California—which will be America if Democrats regain the White House in 2020—it is nearly impossible to build homes.

A particularly egregious example of what California has in store for the rest of America is the proposed Tejon Ranch housing project that has been embroiled in permitting delays and lawsuits for over 25 years. This massive project, a planned community of over 19,000 badly needed new homes, would straddle Interstate 5 in the northwest corner of Los Angeles County. The developers have committed to set aside 90 percent of the land as a nature preserve, after which the NRDC, the Sierra Club, and the Nature Conservancy all withdrew their objections. But it only takes one: The Center for Biological Diversity has filed yet another lawsuit, and another year is lost.

Americans could build so much more, for less money, and in far less time, if balance were restored to the process of approving construction projects. 

The cost of permitting delays and litigation can literally double or triple the costs of construction, or worse. California’s Carlsbad desalination plant was constructed at a capital cost of $17,000 per acre-foot of annual capacity; modern desalination plants in Israel (that require less electricity) are being constructed at a capital cost of just over $4,000 per acre-foot of annual capacity, less than a quarter as much.

Everywhere on earth, nations are building big infrastructure and providing affordable housing for a fraction of what it costs in the United States.

If these environmentalists, bureaucrats, and plaintiff attorneys actually believe in saving a planet and a people desperately threatened by “climate change,” they’re being awfully impractical. How can Americans possibly build seawalls to protect them from the storm surges of a rising sea, or desalinate seawater to take pressure off the drought-stricken rivers, if projects take decades instead of years, and cost many times what they might cost in other nations?

How, for that matter (since environmentalists and the open-borders crowd are birds of a feather) can America add tens of millions to its population through a massive wave of immigration that hasn’t abated in three decades, yet make it nearly impossible to build homes or enabling infrastructure?

Competitive Abundance vs. Rationed Scarcity

The prospects for abundance instead of rationed scarcity are good, if Congress and the courts were to support the president and enact meaningful reforms to a host of environmental regulations that have gone way too far. 

Nuclear power, clean fossil fuel, desalination plants, upgraded roads with high-speed “smart lanes,” high-rise agriculture, flying cars, and spaceports. Entire new cities with millions of beautiful homes on spacious lots—none of this is out of reach. But all of that requires the kind of freedom that developers enjoyed in the 1960s, tempered to modern sensibilities, with balance.

The consequences of not reforming America’s stultifying regulatory climate go beyond denying the American people a life of affordable abundance, delivered by competitive development of land, energy, and water resources. They spell the end of American preeminence, because while Americans spend trillions to pay unionized government bureaucrats and environmentalist attorneys, the Chinese are spending equivalent trillions on cost-effective infrastructure, with plenty left over to develop hypersonic missiles, brilliant pebbles, particle beams, and so on.

Joel Kotkin, editor of NewGeography.com and perhaps California’s smartest Democrat, just published a column recently titled, “Will the Democrats End Up Saving California’s Republican Party?” Kotkin argues that the Democrats’ “flawed, draconian positions on what to do about climate change have made things worse for ordinary Californians by raising housing and energy prices as well as chasing employers out of the state, but with only mediocre results.” 

Kotkin explains what’s needed—in California and in the rest of America: 

You need a positive program centered on reining in pensions, reform of schools, better attention to roads, promoting new houses in redundant commercial areas as well as the periphery and cuts in the cost of energy. Focus on these issues would expose Democrats as creatures of special interest—teachers unions, public employee groups, the renewable energy lobbies—whose power hurts middle-class homeowners, a group which has been drifting away from them for a generation.

Kotkin’s analysis is accurate. “Public employee groups” and “the renewable energy lobbies” are special interests. If not one and the same, they are allied with the government bureaucrats and environmentalist attorneys who amass power and money every time they stop or delay another infrastructure project or housing development. They are sapping American wealth, oppressing the American people, and empowering hostile regimes around the world.

Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities for our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com.

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About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also the director of water and energy policy for the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities for our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com.