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May Construction Starts Rise 5 Percent

At a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $636.7 billion, new construction starts in May increased 5 percent from April, according to Dodge Data & Analytics. Much of the growth came from the nonbuilding construction sector (public works and electric utilities), which was lifted by a $3.8 billion oil pipeline in the upper Midwest as well as by seven power plant projects with a combined cost of $4.3 billion.

Highway and bridge construction edged up 1 percent in May, advancing for the second month in a row following the lackluster amount reported in March.

Residential building edged up slightly in May, as multifamily housing bounced back from its subdued April performance. However, nonresidential building in May retreated, sliding for the second month in a row after the elevated activity reported in March.

“The construction start statistics have shown annual increases since 2010, including a 10 percent gain in 2015, although the month-to-month pattern has been frequently uneven,” stated Robert A. Murray, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. “This up-and-down behavior continues to be present in 2016, with May seeing a partial rebound after the setback in April. In addition, the year-to-date comparisons in early 2016 relative to last year have been complicated by the fact that the first half of 2015 witnessed elevated levels arising from a number of exceptionally large projects (defined as projects valued at $1 billion or more). There were considerably fewer such projects during the second half of 2015, and this lower base should enable the year-to-date comparisons to improve as 2016 proceeds. The environment for construction still carries a number of positives – long-term interest rates remain low, commercial development is being financed from multiple sources, construction bond measures are being passed at the state level, and the new multiyear federal transportation bill is in place. On the cautionary side, bank lending standards for commercial real estate loans began to tighten during the second half of 2015, and this trend has continued into 2016.”

Nonbuilding construction in May jumped 24 percent to $193.0 billion (annual rate). The public works categories as a group increased 15 percent, helped especially by a 47 percent hike for miscellaneous public works, which includes such diverse project types as pipelines, rail and airport runway projects, and site work. May’s data included the start of the Dakota Access Pipeline, with an estimated construction start cost of $3.8 billion, located in the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois.

This oil pipeline will connect the Bakken and Three Forks production areas in North Dakota to existing pipelines in Illinois. The river/harbor development category in May climbed 81 percent, rebounding after a weak April. Sewer construction in May advanced 42 percent, helped by the start of a $149 million sewage pumping station in Kailua, Hawaii, and a $130 million sewage treatment plant upgrade in the Binghamton, N.Y., area.

The electric power and gas plant portion of nonbuilding construction soared 57 percent in May. There were four large natural gas-fired power plants included as construction starts, located in Pennsylvania ($1.2 billion), Ohio ($890 million), Florida ($750 million), and Texas ($575 million). There were also three large wind farms that reached groundbreaking in May, located in Kansas (two projects valued at $400 million and $220 million, respectively), and North Dakota ($249 million).

Murray noted, “Last December Congress approved an extension to the wind-energy production tax credit through 2019, which is contributing to the healthy pace for new wind power projects so far in 2016.”

Residential building, at $272.5 billion (annual rate), improved 1 percent in May. The multifamily side of the housing market provided the upward push, increasing 15 percent. There were eight multifamily projects valued at $100 million or more that reached groundbreaking in May, compared to five such projects in April.

The May large projects were led by a $500 million apartment tower in Chicago, followed by a $453 million apartment tower in Jersey City,N.J., and the $345 million apartment portion of a $500 million mixed-use high-rise in New York.

By major region, single family housing in May showed this pattern compared to April – the Midwest, down 7 percent; the South Atlantic, down 6 percent; the West, down 4 percent; the South Central, no change, and the Northeast, up 3 percent.

Nonresidential building in May decreased 6 percent to $171.2 billion (annual rate), marking the second straight monthly decline after the heightened activity in March. The commercial building categories as a group experienced a 9 percent shortfall in May.

Hotel construction, which had been particularly strong during the initial months of 2016, fell 22 percent. Large projects that reached groundbreaking in May included the $97 million hotel portion of the $500 million mixed-use high-rise in New York and a $75 million Marriott hotel in Menlo Park, Calif. While noteworthy projects by themselves, they were smaller in scale than the substantial hotel and casino projects that reached groundbreaking in February and March.

Office construction in May dropped 11 percent, despite the start of a $191 million office building in Brooklyn, N.Y., a $139 million renovation of a federal government office building in Washington, D.C., and a $95 million renovation of an office campus in Akron, Ohio.

Both stores and warehouses stayed close to their April levels, posting small declines of 1 percent and 3 percent respectively. The manufacturing plant category in May retreated 37 percent, following April’s 38 percent hike that included the $717 million expansion to an alpha olefins plant in Louisiana.

The institutional side of the nonresidential building market held steady in May. The educational facilities category rose a moderate 4 percent, lifted by the start of a $111 million science and technology center at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., an $80 million renovation of a high school in Hartford, Conn., and a $77 million engineering building at San Diego State University in San Diego.

Healthcare facilities increased 7 percent, boosted by groundbreaking for a $230 million hospital in Baton Rouge, La., and a $177 million hospital in Fulton, Mo. Moderate growth was also reported for church construction, up 6 percent; and public buildings (courthouses and detention facilities), up 9 percent.

On the negative side, transportation terminal work slipped 9 percent in May, and amusement-related construction fell 13 percent. Even with its May decline, the amusement category did include the start of the $129 million renovation of the Target Center Arena in Minneapolis and a $98 million “convening” center at Harvard Business School in Allston, Mass.