Manufacturing, utility projects temper 2016 construction start figures

Total construction starts last year advanced 1 percent to $676.5 billion, a considerably smaller gain than the 11 percent increase reported for 2015, according to Dodge Data & Analytics, New York. If the volatile manufacturing plant and electric utility/gas plant categories are excluded, total 2016 construction starts would be up 4 percent, depicting a more gradual deceleration relative to the corresponding 9 percent increase in 2015.

Last year’s limited, year-over-year increase at the national level for total construction starts was the result of a mixed regional performance. Total construction gains were reported in the West and the South Atlantic, each up 10 percent; and the Midwest, up 5 percent. Total construction declines were reported in the Northeast, down 2 percent, especially reflecting a multifamily housing project retreat in metro New York following a strong 2015; and, South Central, down 16 percent, owing to the start of several massive liquefied natural gas export terminals that had spiked 2014 project numbers.

“The construction start statistics over the course of 2016 revealed a varied pattern, with the end result being a slight gain for the year as a whole,” says Dodge Data & Analytics Chief Economist Robert Murray. “Growth was reported during the first and third quarters, while activity settled back during the second and fourth quarters. On the plus side for 2016, commercial building continued to rise, and institutional building provided evidence that it was beginning to regain upward momentum after pausing in 2015. Single-family housing showed moderate improvement, while multifamily housing witnessed growth in numerous markets with the notable exception of New York, which retreated after the robust activity reported in 2015. On the negative side, public works settled back in 2016, and steep declines were reported for manufacturing plants and the gas plant portion of the electric utility/gas plant category.”

“In a broad sense, construction activity shifted to a more mature stage of expansion in 2016, characterized by a slower rate of growth for total construction compared to the 10–12 percent gains of the previous four years,” he adds. “For 2017, more growth at a moderate pace is expected for total construction. Commercial building has yet to see much in the way of rising vacancy rates, and the institutional building sector will be helped by the passage of such recent bond measures as the $9 billion Proposition 51 in California. Manufacturing plant construction should turn upward, no longer exerting a downward pull on overall construction activity. Despite rising mortgage rates, housing should benefit from greater demand coming from an increasing number of millennials moving into their 30s. And, public works will be supported by recent bond measures passed at the state level, although Congress will need to revisit the flat federal funding for highways under the current continuing resolution that expires at the end of April. Additional support for public works will depend on how Congress responds to the proposals by the Trump Administration for more infrastructure spending, including incentives to spur private investment.”