Saturday, January 26, 2008

State budgets and the rising construction costs

Costs have jumped for projects as varied as levee construction in New Orleans, Everglades restoration in Florida and huge sewer system upgrades in Atlanta. The reconstruction of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, a $234 million project, has been fast-tracked for completion by December, and state officials say it is too soon to know whether it will come in on budget.

The impact has been felt in different regions at different times, and not every project has been high-profile. In Oregon, high costs have forced the State Department of Transportation to slow the rate at which it upgrades roads and bridges. In Seattle, school building projects were put on a fast track this fall because of fears of cost overruns.

“We escalated our project schedule to get ahead,” said Fred Stephens, director of facilities and construction for Seattle Public Schools.

Nationwide, increasing costs first became a problem for some projects more than two years ago, and in some regions the rate of increase has dropped in the past year. But some regions are tighter than ever, and the pressure from the high costs can be more acute in the context of general revenue declines.

The list of culprits for the increases often depends on the rate of growth and construction in a particular region, with labor costs playing a role along with the rising prices of materials like steel and concrete, and asphalt, fuel and other petroleum-based products.

Experts say high costs are linked to competition from a global development boom, particularly in China and India; the housing boom in the United States; and the rush to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and other recent hurricanes that struck Florida and the Southeast. In the Northwest, public projects have competed with downtown construction surges in Seattle and Portland. Just across the Canadian border, hotels and highways are being built to prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

The costs have added to what has become an increasingly bleak economic forecast for many states and local governments. At least 25 states expect to have budget deficits in 2009, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which estimates the combined budget shortfall for 17 of the states at $31 billion or more. Many cities, too, see difficult times ahead as revenues wane and costs increase for wages, pensions and health care...

In San Leandro, a city of 78,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mr. Udemezue said the city could not afford to delay work on the parking garage and retiree center.
“We can’t wait,” he said, “because we don’t know if the prices are going to come down or go up.”

In the grading guide known as the Pavement Condition Index, zero is not far from a dirt strip and 100 is a fresh new roadway. When Mr. Udemezue began working for San Leandro 16 years ago, the average road ranking in the city was nearly 70. Now it is closer to 60, despite what Mr. Udemezue said were the city’s efforts to keep up maintenance.

Years ago, there was more money in the city’s general revenue stream that could be diverted to help with basic maintenance, which Mr. Udemezue said required about $5 million a year.

That general revenue now goes to other needs, like public safety, and the roads go wanting, with flat revenue from gas taxes and other declines leaving about $1.2 million to maintain roads each year. The $13 million retiree center and the $8 million parking garage have been affected, too, with the city dropping plans to build commercial space beneath the garage and reducing the space for social programs in the center.

Mr. Udemezue and others say they have heard that things may be stabilizing, but they cannot be sure.

-Building Costs Deal Blow to Local Budgets

1 comment:

Maynard said...

Economists should be thrilled. Their response, when confronted by the statements of people like Paul Ehrlich that the population was already too high and the problem was only going to get worse, has always been that the market will work it out; that as scarcity arises prices will reflect that.
Guess what --- too many people, scarcity arising, the price reflect that.

Oddly enough, this isn't making most of us happy. What's the flaw? Perhaps the fact that the original response was freaking idiotic in the first place. Sure it is true that the price of copper (and oil, and water) will rise as more people want to use the limited supply that exists. And how is this a good thing? It doesn't change the fact that there are too many people and not enough stuff.

Today's question for pondering: how long will it take before the rough consensus finally forms admitting that the primary problem of the 21st century is overpopulation? I'm not optimistic.

(Of course it doesn't help that in the US we have the particular idiocy of the pretense that public goods don't exist and that taxes aren't necessary. There is no reason these items couldn't be paid for if taxes were not raised. The issue is not a lack of money, it is a collective delusion that the maintenance of the machinery of society costs nothing.)