Why it takes so long to build a bridge in America

In America, by contrast, official responsibility is a kind of free-for-all among multiple federal, state and local agencies, with courts called upon to sort it out after everyone else has dropped of exhaustion. The effect is not just delay, but decisions skewed toward the squeaky wheels instead of the common good. This is not how democracy is supposed to work.

America is missing the key element of regulatory finality: No one is in charge of deciding when there has been enough review. Avoiding endless process requires changing the regulatory structure in two ways:

Environmental review today is done by a “lead agency”—such as the Coast Guard in the case of the Bayonne Bridge—that is usually a proponent of a project, and therefore not to be trusted to draw the line. Because it is under legal scrutiny and pressure to prove it took a “hard look,” the lead agency’s approach has mutated into a process of no pebble left unturned, followed by lawsuits that flyspeck documents that are often thousands of pages long.