Inflation also affects infrastructure projects

Rising inflation in the United States is impacting large-scale infrastructure projects:

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The price of a foot of water pipe in Tucson, Arizona: up 19%. The cost of a ton of asphalt in a small Massachusetts town: up 37%. The estimate to build a new airport terminal in Des Moines, Iowa: 69% higher, with a several year delay.

Inflation is taking a toll on infrastructure projects across the U.S., driving up costs so much that state and local officials are postponing projects, scaling back others and reprioritizing their needs.

The price hikes already are diminishing the value of a $1 trillion infrastructure plan President Joe Biden signed into law just seven months ago. That law had included, among other things, a roughly 25% increase in regular highway program funding for states.

“Those dollars are essentially evaporating,” said Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “The cost of those projects is going up by 20%, by 30%, and just wiping out that increase from the federal government that they were so excited about earlier in the year.”

Because a number of these projects have to get done, it sounds like the primary effect of inflation is to delay projects. This has a cascading effect on getting better infrastructure in place, jobs, construction and its consequences, and more.

I wonder if there are any brewing stories where inflation plus cost overruns, which can happen on large complicated projects, lead to big price tags.

Proposed buildings that could go on for miles

A proposed new city in Saudi Arabia may include the world’s largest buildings:

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NEOM, the brainchild of Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, aims to build twin skyscrapers about 500 meters (1,640 feet) tall that stretch horizontally for dozens of miles, the people said.

The skyscrapers would house a mix of residential, retail and office space running from the Red Sea coast into the desert, the people said, asking not to be identified as the information is private. The plan is a shift from the concept announced last year of building a string of developments linked by underground hyper-speed rail, into a long continuous structure, the people said.

Designers were instructed to work on a half mile-long prototype, current and former NEOM employees said. If it goes forward in full, each structure would be larger than the world’s current biggest buildings, most of which are factories or malls rather than residential communities.

Imagine a building that stretches on for miles. As one follows it with their eye, it just keeps going and going. A building that goes past the horizon.

How does one get around within such a building? Moving walkways? Segways? An interior mass transit system? Or, exit the building and use a vehicle out there?

I could imagine a fairly self-contained community inside such a building. Going outside might not be very necessary except for going to a different city. What an American suburbanite might desire to be within a ten minute drive just happens to all be in the same structure.

Since this is in the planning stages, it could be years for the development to arise and stretch out to the point where the buildings are the largest and/or longest in the world.

You can buy the newly constructed home – without a garage door

Supply chain issues have limited the availability of garage doors for new homes:

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In most parts of the country, a builder can’t pass final inspection for a home that is otherwise perfectly complete — but that is missing its garage door. That means builders don’t get paid and home buyers can’t move in…

These last two years, the garage has also become the answer to all kinds of pandemic problems. It’s the remote office, the home gym, the one-room schoolhouse and the makeshift bedroom for doubled-up family. The pandemic has effectively completed the decades-long evolution of the garage from a detached carriage house to a connected car annex to a space inseparable from the home itself.

Along the way, the garage door became, for many, the real front door. And so it can be surreal to see brand-new homes with their garages sealed in plywood, or to hear homebuilders talk of installing temporary ones. Welcome to your dream home! The real garage door will be coming later…

Amid all this variety, a few problems have been acute lately. Many doors contain spray-foam insulation, which has been in short supply since the plants in Texas that manufacture its chemical components were disrupted in last year’s winter freeze. (If you make garage doors, you’re also competing for polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride with window frames, vinyl siding, caulking — and the aerospace, cruise ship and automotive industries.)

Many other garage door components are made from steel, which has also been in short supply. And even companies that manufacture the finished doors domestically typically source parts from China that have been snarled in global shipping.

Having a garage is essential in many ways (hence the need for it in a final inspection): it protects whatever is in the garage from the elements, it seals up the opening for safety, it provides for entering and leaving, and it is part of the front that home presents to the world.

Indeed, with the development of the single-family home in the United States, the garage became a key, and sometimes, leading component. With homes in the suburbs dependent on cars plus the ownership of more and more vehicles, garages became larger and featured more prominently in the front facade. As the term “snout house” implies, some houses literally lead with the garage closest to the street. In other homes, the garage might be set further back or even discreetly turned or more hidden from the front. Regardless where the garage is placed and featured, it is very important to the American single-family home.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to rethink garages and how they might work. As noted above, many garages have been used in different ways during COVID-19. Is there a way to build them where they can be more quickly converted without the need for a traditional large door? In a possible future of electric car fleets, how would a home garage work?

Waiting for post COVID-19 flight traffic at the busiest airports

New data on the busiest airports in the United States suggests there is room for more flights in 2022:

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O’Hare International Airport remained America’s second-busiest hub behind Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2021, but experts say the number to watch is a 27% rebound in flights compared to a dismal 2020…

At the same time, O’Hare continues to climb out of a pandemic slump of 538,211 arrivals and departures in 2020. To put that in context, operations totaled 919,704 in 2019 when O’Hare held the title for most U.S. flights…

What other airports are bustling? The third-most voluminous was Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, followed by Denver International Airport, Charlotte Douglas International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport in sixth place.

I have been to the Chicago airports one time for a flight in the last two years and that visit in October 2021 seemed fairly close to normal. Theoretically, the pandemic provided a little space to make improvements or tackle projects at airports. I saw some improvements underway. At least a few big projects are in process at O’Hare:

An expansion of Terminal 5 is in full swing, with more than $1 billion earmarked to modernize the global facility.

At the same time, plans for major airports like O’Hare likely take place on the scale of decades, not necessarily a year at a time. For example, discussions regarding adding a new western terminal and entrance to O’Hare have gone on for years with some progress toward that goal.

It will also be interesting to see how the role of airports changes as the United States shifts to more electric vehicles. If longer road trips are different, will more people want to fly to destinations more than a few hours away? Flights are not exactly green but the transportation landscape could change in the next few decades.

Complicated urban repairs: 20 years to repair 11 blocks of Park Ave above and below ground

Manhattan is dense, above ground and below ground. Hence, the city is planning for a 20 year project to to a portion of Park Avenue:

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The good news is the city finally has plans to restore 11 blocks of Park Avenue north of Grand Central to a semblance of its former glory, Bloomberg reports, expanding the median from a useless 20 feet to a potentially-rejuvenating 48 feet. That redesigned street could include bike paths, walking paths, and generally more space for things other than cars or pretty things for people in cars to look at as they drive by.

The bad news is many if not most of the people currently living and working in New York will not be around to enjoy it once it’s done. It will take 20 years to redesign these 11 blocks, according to the city’s Department of Transportation. Yes, you read that right. The project to redesign 11 blocks of a Manhattan street will not be completed until 2042.

But there is no mistake, according to both DOT and Kaye Dyja, Powers’s spokesperson. As Dyja explained, “The reason the construction is going to take a long time is because they’re improving the underground railroads leading to Grand Central, as well as redoing the ‘train sheds.’ This entails that they’re digging up the ground, so the construction will have to take place in stages which will end up taking many years to complete.”

The project Dyja is referring to is a massive $2 billion renovation of the Metro North infrastructure underneath Park Avenue from Grand Central to 57th Street. Park Avenue is a bridge over those tracks, and like many of the U.S.’s bridges, this one is falling apart, too. The project will involve ripping up sidewalks and the median of Park Avenue a couple blocks at a time, going section by section, down the stretch of Park Avenue. It is expected to cause more or less permanent disruption to the Midtown East area, to varying degrees, over the next two decades. 

As a kid, I remember reading books with cross-sections of underground Manhattan. Seeing all of that infrastructure needed for modern urban life – pilings for skyscrapers, subways, water pipes and sewers, etc. – was fascinating.

The flip side of that is the work it takes to make significant changes to such a system. It takes time (and money) to work around what is there and complete the work.

The time is one factor but I wonder about how the budgets will work over a 20 year period. Large American infrastructure projects can have a tendency to stretch in terms of time and budget as the work is underway.

I would love to say I will check in on this in twenty years but that is a long commitment…

The downsides to older housing

A planner and researcher argues older homes on the whole should not be celebrated and that the United States should instead focus on building newer, better housing:

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In housing circles, one hears a lot of self-righteous discussion about the need for more preservation. And many American homes doubtless deserve to stick around. But the truth is that we fetishize old homes. Whatever your aesthetic preferences, new construction is better on nearly every conceivable measure, and if we want to ensure universal access to decent housing, we should be building a lot more of it…

In the meantime, we’re stuck with a lot of old housing that, to put it bluntly, just kind of sucks. A stately Victorian manor in the Berkshires is one thing. But if you live in a Boston triple-decker, a kit-built San Jose bungalow, or a Chicago greystone, your home is the cheap housing of generations past. These structures were built to last a half century—at most, with diligent maintenance—at which point the developers understood they would require substantial rehabilitation. Generally speaking, however, the maintenance hasn’t been diligent, the rehabilitation isn’t forthcoming, and any form of redevelopment is illegal thanks to overzealous zoning.

You might think uneven floors or steep stairwells have “character.” You’ll get no argument here. But more often than not, old housing is simply less safe…

The fact is that those much-lamented cookie-cutter five-over-one apartment buildings cropping up across the U.S. solve the problems of old housing and then some. Modern building codes require sprinkler systems and elevators, and they disallow lead paint. New buildings rarely burn down, rarely poison their residents, and nearly always include at least one or two units designed to accommodate people in wheelchairs.

And despite what old-home snobs may believe, new housing is also just plain nice to live in—in many ways an objective improvement on what came before.

New housing does indeed have features, including aesthetic choices and functionality, that often better suit current users. Safety can be a persuasive argument. And there certainly is a need for more housing units in many locations.

However, continuing to use, rehabbing or renovating, and preserving housing can sometimes address these concerns and provide continuity in structure and character. We often tie concepts like stability, tradition, and permanence to housing units, even if they are not the best construction or something better comes along later.

What would be interesting to see is if one American city or region was willing to commit to building new housing in the way described in this piece. If there is there is the will and resources to construct plentiful, attractive, and safe new housing and not fix up or save older homes, what would happen?How would it transform everyday life and society?

One aspect of this debate that I wondered about: is it greener to build a lot more new housing or to rehab existing housing?

Where is the construction of cheaper homes in the United States?

One recent analysis suggests a major contributor to the lack of homes for sale is limited construction of new homes:

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Earlier this year, Realtor.com estimated the gap between the number of homes needed and the number of homes available at 5.24 million. That estimate in June represented an increase of 1.4 million above the estimated 3.84 million gap in 2019, primarily because residential construction hasn’t kept up with household formations.

From January 2012 to June 2021, 12.3 million new American households were formed, but just 7 million new single-family houses were built, according to Realtor.com.

The housing shortage is particularly acute in the more-affordable range. Newly built houses with a median sales price of $300,000 represented just 32 percent of builder sales in the first half of 2021, compared with 43 percent during the first half of 2018, according to Realtor.com. To close the gap between demand and supply, builders would need to double their pace of construction for five or six years, Realtor.com economists estimate.

I have been trying to keep track of this for several years now: where are the new cheaper homes? If home builders are interested in selling homes, why not also create products for this part of the market?

There could be lots of reasons for this present state. But, this is not just a problem of 2021; this has been going on for at least a few years. Who can or will act to address this? Is this a pressing social concern that requires attention or just something to note every so often?

Imagine a time in the near future after this trend of the last ten years or so has truly piled up. How will younger adults pursue homeownership, a goal many Americans still say is desirable? Will a lower end of the housing market simply disappear to be overshadowed by more expensive, larger homes that truly generate profits?

If this continues, I would not be surprised to see more calls for housing interventions beyond the market.

Solving the shipping logistics of tiny houses

This particular tiny house might be notable because Elon Musk was an early recipient but it has another claim to fame: better ways to ship the tiny house.

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Well, he reportedly lives in the Casita, a $49,500 375-square-foot unit created by Las Vegas-based Boxabl…

According to Tiramani, other prefab home makers struggle with one glaring issue: shipping logistics.

But unlike other prefab homes, the Casitas can be folded down from 20 feet to about 8.5 feet while it’s being transported on a truck or towed by a pickup truck…

So when the Casita arrives at its final destination, the home just needs to be unfolded (which takes a few hours) and then attached to its foundation and utilities, before it’s totally move-in ready.

This sounds like an Ikea like solution to furniture: get the house down to a smaller package so that it can be easily transported. Then, at the location, you assemble the product. All of this cuts down on costs. Do not underestimate the importance of shipping and logistics; for example, companies like Sears, Walmart, and Amazon mastered shipping and logistics in ways that helped them sell a lot of goods.

More broadly, the mass production, easier shipping, and modular capabilities of such homes offers lots of opportunities. Mass produced housing as we know it – think Levittowns and large builders constructing subdivisions of suburban homes over months – has endured much criticism. At the same time, this mass produced tiny house comes in a more reasonable price point, could be available to more people, and could be customized. There is still an issue of having people to put these homes together and having land; this might tie this mass production to tiny house subdivisions or clusters.

The beauty of and danger to California’s Highway One

Over a decade ago, we planned a vacation that involved driving Highway One from San Francisco down the California coast. I had visited California several times before but had never driven this famous road. While our drive was relatively quick as we spent more time in urban centers, we enjoyed the scenery and the contrast of the roadway to typical straight Midwest roads.

With the recent washout in Big Sur, the need for constant reconstruction – and why – is interesting:

Highway 1 is a California spectacle, a Depression-era monument to the state’s quixotic ambitions and stunning beauty. It runs from the Orange County surf haven of Dana Point in the south into cannabis-cultivating Mendocino County, carrying heavy traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge and under the bluffs of Santa Monica, where it is better known as the Pacific Coast Highway, on its 650-mile route…

The engineering folly of a road built on sheer cliffs has meant that closures are annual events — the “whens,” not “ifs” — for the people and the economy it supports.

But the wild card now is the increasing frequency of wildfire along a roughly 100-mile stretch from William Randolph Hearst’s hilltop castle at San Simeon to Carmel, which is stripping fragile hillsides of stabilizing vegetation and causing more slides and more serious washouts across a region known broadly as Big Sur…

An even larger stretch of Highway 1 reopened in 2018 after a 14-month closure at Mud Creek about 20 miles south of here. The road was buried — not washed away, as in Rat Creek’s case — when the rocky ground above it gave way in hard rains.

This is one of the few times in my life where the road itself was a destination – and it was worth it. Keeping this corridor open is important even as it is a difficult stretch to maintain.

Major highway projects continue in the year of COVID-19

The old Chicago joke goes that there are two seasons each year: winter and construction. During COVID-19, road construction goes on even with less driving, limited budgets, and the potential for sickness to spread among workers. First, an editorial update from the Chicago Tribune on the long-lasting Jane Byrne Interchange work in Chicago:

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The arrival of 2021 means we’ll soon be in Construction Season Nine of a notorious project that the Illinois Department of Transportation initially said would take four and a half years to complete.

We refer of course to the glacially paced reconstruction of The Jane Byrne Construction Museum. We use that respectful moniker — always capitalize The, like The Ohio State University — for what old-time Chicagoans used to call the Jane Byrne Interchange…

Whatever the reason, drivers who didn’t abandon the interchange years ago have, in recent days, found the final four rebuilt ramps open. Museum work has shifted to the mainline Dan Ryan and Kennedy expressways — although we trust that, somewhere, IDOT also is building a museum wing to house its excuses for the years of delays and cost overruns: poor soil conditions, unhelpful rules from Chicago’s City Hall, mistakes by engineering firms, utility rerouting, the diversion of resources to emergency repair projects elsewhere, and on and on…

Surely you aren’t surprised that the cost has grown by some 48%, from $535.5 million to $794 million. Most museums recruit donors to cover their big projects. The Jane Byrne Construction Museum instead gets public dollars. Which has us wondering how many gazillion gallons of amply taxed gasoline burned into the atmosphere as all those mummified motorists sat and sat.

Second, a group puts together an annual list of road construction boondoggles. About this year’s selections:

Highways often get greenlit for expensive work because they require engineering upgrades or significant maintenance. The projects in PIRG’s least-wanted list go beyond those basic needs. Like the group’s previous boondoggle roundups, this one calls attention to taxpayer-funded projects set to consume environmental resources, cut through existing communities, and lock in decades of new carbon emissions, for what PIRG argues is little payoff in congestion relief or economic growth. The 2020 report arrives as the ongoing pandemic clobbers state and local budgets and dramatically reshuffles travel patterns.

The largest on the list is Florida’s M-CORES project, a $10 billion, 330-mile plan to build three toll roads through rural southwest and central Florida. Dubbed the “Billionaire Boulevard” by critics who characterize the project as a handout to developers, a state task force recently found a lack of “specific need” for any of the roads, which would run through environmentally sensitive areas.

There’s also the Cincinnati Eastern Bypass, a $7.3 billion highway set to loop around the eastern side of Cincinnati. Originally proposed by a local homebuilder as a replacement (and then some) for the aging bridge that leads into downtown Cincinnati, the 75-mile, four-lane bypass is designed to divert trucks passing through the region on Interstate 75, easing congestion for local drivers, boosters claim. But the report’s authors state that the highway is projected to add thousands of new vehicle trips per day, encouraging sprawl and contradicting Cincinnati’s goals to increase “population density and transit-oriented development” and decrease fossil fuel use by 20%.

No highway policy critique would be complete without a contribution from Texas. The $1.36 billion Loop 1604 Expansion in San Antonio would add four to six additional lanes on 23 miles of an existing four-lane highway, as well as new frontage roads and a five-tier interchange with Interstate 10. Texas DOT says that the new lanes are needed to keep up with population growth, but transportation planners say that the principle of induced demand would cancel out the benefits while adding pollution. The PIRG report puts it this way: “Additional capacity causes more driving and congestion.”

These summaries of major highway projects provide good reminders of several features of such undertakings:

  1. They often require years of planning and years to complete. From start to finish, this could cover a decade-plus. They take a lot of effort to get going across numerous agencies, governments, and actors and have their own kind of inertia as they move toward completion.
  2. These projects are often intended to make driving easier. Adding lanes and capacity can also attract more drivers. In a country devoted to driving, these contradictory ideas can go together. And the roads and systems for driving keep expanding and evolving.
  3. The costs are huge and the efforts required massive. Yet, the average driver may think about nothing but the congestion caused by the construction.
  4. When completed, such roads (and other significant infrastructure projects) can be impressive in their scale. (Whether this is the best use of the land or moving people around leads to other arguments.)

While these articles do not address this, are there significant infrastructure projects that drivers and residents would be pleasantly surprised to find that had been completed during COVID-19?