Despite an anticipation of widespread project delays caused by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, starts across the region remained steady last year, especially during the first half of 2020. The current top starts ranking reveals that most of the new projects were more modestly priced—with no megaprojects in the mix—representing a mix of highways and bridges, wind farms, education and health care work.
In addition, capital construction in many states has benefited from the recent passage of the federal relief act, and public-sector budgets have stabilized despite dire predictions to the contrary.
Still, many contractors are concerned about what’s on the horizon. That’s due, in part, to an anticipated drop in construction spending, as a decline in new projects has squeezed nonresidential contractors especially tight. Construction spending in February dropped nearly 0.8% from January, although the overall total was 5.3% higher than in February 2020, according to federal government data.
“The downturn in February reflects both an unfavorable change from mild January weather and an ongoing decline in new nonresidential projects,” said AGC chief economist Ken Simonson.
Large private nonresidential projects, including commercial construction, slumped 7.1% year over year and 1.2% for the month. Even the formerly consistent residential sector slipped 0.2% for the month. Firms are being squeezed by rising input prices and ongoing supply-chain issues.
But there’s good news in the form of increasing backlogs in some sectors and possibly more work in the pipeline. Architecture billings in February reached their first positive mark since February 2020, according to AIA. “Hopefully, this is the start of a more sustained recovery,” said AIA chief economist Kermit Baker.
Meanwhile, the industry remains cautiously optimistic about the Biden administration’s $2-trillion infrastructure proposal. “These investments will create a significant number of new construction career opportunities that traditionally pay well above jobs in other industries,” said AGC CEO Stephen E. Sandherr.
Most contractors say they will wait and see what happens in a highly divided Congress.