Contribute to the US Megaprojects Database!
Very large construction or technology development projects are sometimes called “megaprojects." By directing thousands of workers and billions of dollars towards the achievement of a single goal, great things can be achieved. The output of megaprojects marks some of the most impressive achievements of civilization, and US megaprojects like the Apollo Program, the Empire State Building, and the Transcontinental Railroad mark some of our country’s greatest moments.
When a megaproject goes well, it achieves something incredibly impressive, and provides a playbook for how we might achieve more impressive things in the future. When a megaproject goes poorly, on the other hand, enormous amounts of money are wasted, and sometimes the project never sees the light of day.
But it’s hard to find good information on US megaprojects. There’s no central repository of large US projects, and once you get past the most readily available examples (the Apollo Program, the Manhattan Project, the Empire State Building, the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Erie Canal, and so on), hunting down additional examples is more difficult. Lists that do exist are woefully incomplete. This Wikipedia list, for instance, doesn’t include things like the Erie Canal or the Transcontinental Railroad. And for many projects, particularly private ventures like the construction of large factories or product development efforts, it's hard to even know they exist if you don’t already happen to know about them. IBM spent $5 billion dollars (equivalent to $47 billion in 2022 dollars) developing System/360, but there’s no easy way to find that out if you don’t already know about it.
In the interests of correcting this problem, I’ve created a publicly available database of US megaprojects. It can be found here. Right now it’s populated with megaprojects that I and some other IFP folks (especially Jeremy Neufeld) were able to find, but I’m hopeful that other people will add more projects to the list. If you know of any large US projects, I encourage you to add them to the database if they’re not already there.
What counts as a megaproject? The traditional definition of a megaproject is a project costing a billion dollars or more.
I actually don't love this definition, for a few reasons. For one, as inflation creeps up, a billion dollars gets you less and less project. We're at the point now where a somewhat large factory can easily cost a billion dollars or more, which is perhaps stretching the definition of "megaproject."
In the other direction, if you look at past projects, a billion-dollar cutoff will screen off what are objectively extremely large projects, even after adjusting for inflation. The Erie Canal, a 350-mile canal that took 8 years and thousands of workers to build, is a megaproject by any reasonable definition, but it only cost around $200 million in 2023 dollars.
The definition I like is the somewhat more complicated "years of labor equivalent." Take the cost of the project at the time, and divide it by GDP-per-capita at the year of completion to get (somewhat fictitious) years of labor. Using this metric, anything around 100,000 years of labor or more (aka 100 kiloyears) would qualify as a megaproject in my mind.
Of course, it's often not obvious what the inflation-adjusted cost or years-equivalent of a project is until you've gone and looked it up, and indeed if you look in the database you'll see many projects that don't meet these criteria (because I didn't know they wouldn't meet it when I started looking them up). So if there's a large project that seems like it might meet this criterion, go ahead and add it, even if it turns out that it doesn't.
There's also the issue of what counts as a project at all. A project is "an undertaking planned to achieve a particular aim," but if your aim is abstract or high-level enough this can encompass what might more naturally be thought of as a collection of smaller projects. (Are the US’s efforts in World War 2 a megaproject? Is fighting climate change a megaproject?) In the other direction, things that seem like singular efforts are sometimes unplanned amalgamations of smaller projects. To this I simply say "use your best judgment": if it seems like a project, go ahead and add it.
It's not important to add every piece of information about a project: even just a name is helpful, if it points to something that isn't already included and I wasn't aware existed. The spreadsheet can automatically calculate the inflation-adjusted cost and labor-years equivalent by copying the appropriate cells from another row (the cells in gray): only the cells in white need to be filled in.
The US Megaproject Database can be found here. Thank you in advance for your contributions!