Red State Building Blues
Excessive infrastructure costs plague freeway construction in conservative areas, too.
High infrastructure construction costs in many American cities, which have made headlines for several years, are now being formally studied by a team of New York University researchers. Since much of the work so far has examined rail infrastructure in dense cities such as New York and Boston, some Americans may be tempted to write off the issue as simply another example of blue-state corruption. But a look at some recent freeway projects in conservative states with a reputation for low costs and generally good governance suggests that infrastructure cost problems in the United States may be far more widespread.
Any analysis should first establish a baseline of typical freeway costs in continental Europe. A contributor to the forum skyscrapercity.com has made a large compilation of recently completed or planned projects. My own attempts to find costs for some of the larger projects on this list, though admittedly unsystematic, suggest that in Europe, a new four-lane expressway in an undeveloped area without unusual terrain difficulties should cost about $10 million to $20 million per mile in round numbers, with some outliers on the high end.
Let’s start by looking at Spain, a nation with some of the world’s lowest infrastructure costs. A news report from the province of Castilla y León in 2021 reported on several projects in progress. Among the largest: a new four-lane freeway segment parallel to an existing road between the towns of Santiuste and Venta Nueva, already 77 percent completed, was estimated to cost 86.7 million euros for 16.2 kilometers—roughly $9.3 million per mile, using a euro-to-dollar conversion rate of 1.1. Another completed project in the same region, between the towns San Esteban de Gormaz and Langa de Duero, cost 66.96 million euros for 12.8 kilometers, or about $9.1 million per mile.
Similar price tags are seen in other European countries with cheap infrastructure, such as Scandinavia. One of the largest recently finished freeway projects in Sweden, for instance, is a segment of Riksväg 40, a road connecting the cities of Gothenburg and Jönköping that is gradually being upgraded to a four-lane freeway. Seventeen kilometers of this upgraded road, through hilly terrain near the town of Ulricehamn, opened in 2015. Veidekke, the contractor for the most complex seven-kilometer subsegment of this road—including six bridges and a quarter-mile twin-bore tunnel—claims that this subsegment cost 570 million Swedish kronor, or roughly $13 million per mile. In Denmark, the Holstebromotorvej, a 39-kilometer freeway between the small cities of Herning and Holstebro, was completed in 2018 for 2.85 billion Danish kroner, a quarter less than the originally projected price and about $17 million per mile. In Norway, a four-lane freeway running 23 kilometers between the towns of Tvedestrand and Arendal on the nation’s southeast coast opened in 2019. The project includes 27 bridges, four short tunnels, and extensive cuttings through rocky terrain, and cost just over 3 billion Norwegian kroner, or about $22 million per mile—quite a low price considering the geological challenges and Norway’s high labor costs.
European countries with more expensive rail infrastructure, such as Germany and the Netherlands, tend to have similar or somewhat higher freeway costs. In Germany, a recent 14-kilometer expressway segment through the hills of the Rhineland–Palatinate, opened in 2019, cost only 112 million euros—about $14 million per mile. A large expansion of Bundesautobahn 14, with several segments already completed, will cost a planned 1.7 billion euros for 155 kilometers, or about $19 million per mile. (To be fair, Germany does have more expensive projects, such as a short urban bypass in the northern part of the country that cost 231.7 million euros for 9.5 kilometers, or $42 million per mile—though this expense may owe to the freeway’s proximity to a dense urban area, requiring many overpasses and extensive noise mitigation.) The most expensive large European project that does not involve considerable tunneling or pass through a dense city may be the Buitenring Parkstad Limburg in the Netherlands: a 26-kilometer beltway around a dense urban agglomeration that had a final bill of 446 million euros, or about $30 million per mile. This sum was enough to provoke a substantial scandal, as it more than tripled the original budget.
Many routine freeway projects in the U.S., in states with low labor costs and reputations for good governance, have far exceeded these European projects for no apparent reason. Consider an in-progress segment of Interstate 69 in Indiana, running from the Indianapolis beltway to the town of Martinsville 26 miles to the southwest. In 2018, the expenditure for the project was estimated at $1.6 billion, or about $62 million per mile—far above any European project that I know of that does not run through a dense city or require tunneling. Unlike the European projects discussed in this essay, moreover, I-69 is not actually a new road. It is an upgrade of the existing State Route 37, already a four-lane divided highway, to eliminate some at-grade intersections, widen shoulders, and otherwise improve the road to Interstate design standards—significantly less work than a new freeway would be.
Why should this project require three times as much money as wholly new European freeways? One partial excuse might be the larger number of road crossings on the project—one source claims that it will involve reconstruction of 35 overpasses and construction of 39 new ones. But overpasses are not expensive enough to account fully for the difference. The Federal Highway Administration reports that outside a few especially expensive regions such as the Northeast, bridges over freeways cost (in round numbers) roughly between $100 and $250 per square foot in the United States—meaning that a 20-foot-wide bridge over a 200-foot-wide freeway could be expected to require about $1 million in spending.
Another example, in the Midwest: the Wisconsin DOT recently widened a 45-mile segment of Interstate 39/90 from Madison to the border with Illinois, adding an additional lane in each direction and reconfiguring a few interchanges. According to an estimate made in 2018 when the work was well underway and a projected three years from completion, the project was estimated at $1.2 billion—roughly $27 million per mile. A more recent official report from shortly before completion gave the cost as $1.17 billion. This cost per mile would pay for an uncommonly expensive new freeway in Europe, and merely adding a lane to an existing freeway should be a much easier project than building a new freeway from scratch.
Finally, let’s consider two projects in Texas, the exemplar of car-loving red states. The Grand Parkway is a nearly complete third ring road for the Houston metropolitan area. The last segments still under construction lie to the east of the city and traverse flat, generally undeveloped territory. A fact sheet from mid-2020, when these final segments were approximately half-finished, estimated a cost of $1.26 billion for new construction or upgrades on a total of 43.6 miles of roadway (not counting the cost of tolling facilities), plus upgrades to the tolling infrastructure on a shorter segment of preexisting road. This is a cost of $28.9 million per mile, which would again be quite high for a new four-lane freeway in Europe. But the 43.6 miles of new Grand Parkway construction comprise 37.5 miles of new road that is mostly two lanes, with a few short four-lane sections to allow passing; and 6.1 miles of adding four new toll lanes to an existing road.
In San Antonio, meanwhile, the Texas Department of Transportation is widening Loop 1604, one of the city’s ring roads. A seemingly out-of-date page on TxDOT’s website lists one segment already let out to contract, with an estimated cost of $148 million for five miles, or about $30 million per mile—again, significantly above European norms for newly built freeways and almost on par with boondoggles such as the Buitenring Parkstad Limburg, for a project that is not a newly built freeway. The improvements to Loop 1604 principally involve reconfigurations of service roads and the addition of three new lanes in each direction, with little additional landscaping or environmental mitigation required: the segment includes only six crossings of surface roads or other paths, and TxDOT notes that “all improvements are located within the existing right of way and easements.” The next road-widening segment has a budget of $234 million for 7.8 miles—again, $30 million per mile.
Uncovering the causes of these differences would be well worth a research project undertaken by one or more state DOTs. They should itemize in as much detail as possible the costs of several typical recent freeway projects in the United States and request similar data from peer agencies in Europe for comparison. Any inefficiencies in American practices likely also exist in other aspects of civil infrastructure, not just freeway construction.
One common complaint among American public-transit advocates is that U.S. infrastructure planners talk to and learn only from one another, or at best from other English-speaking nations with many of the same problems—meaning that obsolete or inefficient methods get established as best practices. My investigations suggest that even far more routine infrastructure upgrades such as road widenings suffer from the same problems. Any state transportation planner willing to go against the grain and find ways to learn from foreign experiences could likely save taxpayers billions of dollars.
Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images
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