Ideas. Action. Results.

Michele Nellenbach: Cutting Ribbons Won’t Do Anything for Infrastructure

Roll Call

Monday, January 29, 2018

Read the opinion piece below as originally published in Roll Call


President Trump has repeatedly made the case for a comprehensive infrastructure package. He did so on the campaign trail, and he has kept up the drumbeat in the Oval Office. As his administration prepares to issue its proposal for revamping the nation’s creaky transportation systems, aging waterways and inadequate broadband, it should zero in on two key problems.

First is shortsighted spending. The federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars every year on infrastructure. Roughly two-thirds of that spending pays for new, improved or rehabilitated structures as opposed to their everyday operation and maintenance — costs that are mostly borne by state and local governments. For far too long, the federal government has poured money into new construction without an eye to what happens after the ribbons are cut.   

What’s needed is a wholesale change in how this country manages its infrastructure and prioritizes new investments. For example, all applicants for scarce federal funding should have to undertake inventories of the infrastructure assets they own, fully evaluate their conditions and use such analyses to develop long-term plans.

Project plans should include assessments not only of construction costs, but also of what it will take to adequately maintain service for the next 10 years, 20 years or longer. Consistent with the recommendations of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Executive Council on Infrastructure, the president should aim to improve the long-term management of this country’s infrastructure assets by supporting such “life-cycle” cost assessments. While far from glamorous or headline-grabbing, it would be the first step toward making smarter, more effective investments — which is especially crucial now that the country needs more than $3 trillion to meet its infrastructure requirements.

Second is a lack of funding and innovation. Once a state or local government has a better view of its future needs, it can more efficiently manage assets, find ways to raise revenue and weigh new partnerships. Recognizing this opportunity, we expect the president to propose the creation of an incentive fund for which state and local governments will compete. To qualify for the funds, applicants must identify new revenue sources, which should include private sector investment in the form of public-private partnerships, or P3s. BPC’s Executive Council believes that more widespread use of P3s can bring private-sector capital, innovation and expertise to the table.

Importantly, this type of proposal should not just help large cities but establish a separate funding stream for grants to rural communities, which face a different set of challenges. Rural communities struggle to find staff with the expertise needed to pull together competitive infrastructure proposals, and their projects are often too small or infrequent to attract private investment.

Now, what can Congress do? The president’s proposal will begin the infrastructure discussion in earnest, and we can add a few suggestions for Congress to consider.

To start, any new funding should be in addition to current funding levels. A proposal paid for with cuts to other proven infrastructure programs undermines the long-standing role of the federal government as a partner in supporting what are some of our nation’s most critical systems. Congress, states and local governments must act to adopt stable, long-term funding options from a broad range of sources.

Next, Congress should authorize a federal office or program on bundling, a potential means of achieving the economies of scale necessary to attract private partners in rural areas. For instance, Pennsylvania bundled more than 500 rural bridges and hired a private contractor to repair them. Kentucky has a program to deliver broadband across the state, including a region hard hit by the loss of coal-related jobs.

Finally, we expect the president to place an emphasis on further addressing the regulatory delays some projects encounter. Provisions of the two most recently enacted highway bills are still pending administrative action, and those should be implemented. Doing so would help achieve the goal of limiting the federal permitting and environmental review process to just two years, an improvement over the current average of more than five years. In addition, Congress can continue to make simultaneous environmental reviews the norm, empower key decision-makers, expand the online Permitting Dashboard and increase data collection and transparency.

By building on Trump’s proposal and adding some of the suggestions we have outlined, Congress can take the long view on infrastructure. It can grow the economy, improve communities, ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely — and deliver a much-needed bipartisan win for all Americans.

Michele Nellenbach is director of strategic initiatives at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

KEYWORDS: 115TH CONGRESS, EXECUTIVE COUNCIL ON INFRASTRUCTURE, MICHELE NELLENBACH, P3S, PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP