Total construction spending climbed modestly in May as growth in residential and public construction offset a drop in private nonresidential activity, according to an analysis of new Census Bureau data by the Associated General Contractors of America. Association officials predicted that spending would remain uneven through the second half of 2013.

“Hesitancy by private owners to commit to new construction, along with continuing shrinkage in public budgets, will keep the recovery weaker than it otherwise would be,” said Ken Simonson, the association's chief economist. “On the plus side, both new residential spending and improvements to existing homes will keep some contractors busy. Residential spending appears poised for double-digit growth all year long.”

Construction put in place totaled $875 billion in May, an increase of 0.5% from April and 5.4% since May 2012, based on census revisions dating back to 2011. Private residential spending rose 1.2% for the month and 23% from a year earlier. Private nonresidential spending dropped 1.4% in May and 0.9% year-over-year. Public construction spending gained 1.8% for the month but declined 4.7% over 12 months.

“The major private nonresidential segments remain volatile,” Simonson said. “Hotel construction has been the only consistently strong nonresidential category this year. But I expect a gain later in the year in activity related to oil and gas, such as pipelines, petrochemical plants, and fueling facilities for natural gas-powered trucks.”

The biggest jump in construction spending was in new multifamily construction, which soared 2.5% for the month and 52% year-over-year. New single-family construction rose 0.4% and 33%, respectively. Residential additions and renovation fell 2.7% in May but rose 5.1% over 12 months.

The largest private nonresidential category, power construction—which includes oil and gas field and pipeline projects as well as power plants, renewable power and transmission lines—rose 2.1% in May but slipped 1.5% from May 2012.

The second-largest nonresidential segment—manufacturing—plunged 8.1% for the month and 3.4% from May 2012, although the manufacturing total for the first five months of 2013 combined was 5.4% higher than in January-May 2012. The private lodging category, covering hotel construction and renovation, rose 1.6% in May and 22% over 12 months.

Highway and street construction, the largest public category, increased 0.8% in May but fell 7.3% from a year earlier, Simonson noted. The next largest public niche, educational construction, edged up 0.4% for the month but plunged 11% year-over-year, respectively, he added.

“Federal government construction spending appears headed for the steepest decline of any type,” Simonson stated. “Agencies have been cutting back on contracts since 2011, and the pattern seems sure to continue.” Spending on federal projects climbed 0.6% for the month but plunged 16% from a year earlier and 29% from the high point in August 2011, he noted.