Infrastructure Bank: Losing Favor with the White House?

Eighteen months ago, on January 20, 2010, a group of influential politicians, accompanied by a large coterie of representatives of the Washington transportation community, gathered at the Capitol to urge Congress and the Obama Administration to create a "National Infrastructure Bank" to help finance infrastructure investments. The speakers included all the well-known advocates of the Bank: Pennsylvania’s Governor Ed Rendell, Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), author of an Infrastructure Bank bill (H.R. 2521), former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) and Felix Rohatyn, the spiritual godfather of the movement. Standing beside them, in a gesture of support and solidarity, was a large group of executives representing the transportation industry, labor unions and advocacy groups.

For a while, it seemed like their plea would be answered. A proposal for a $30 billion infrastructure bank focused on transportation-related investments was included in the President’s FY 2011 budget proposal unveiled last September. As recently as last month, Mr. Obama was mentioning the Infrastructure Bank as part of his job stimulus plan to be unveiled after Labor Day.

But today, the idea is on life support. Neither the Senate nor the House have seen fit to include the Bank in their proposed transportation bills. Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike are in agreement that decisionmaking control over major federal investments should not be ceded to a group of "unelected bureaucrats." Rather than creating a new federal bureaucracy, they think the focus should be placed on expanding federal credit assistance tools already in place, such as the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) and the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing Program (RRIF).

There are other reasons for congressional skepticism. House Republicans are suspicious that the Obama-proposed Bank is nothing more than a vehicle for more stimulus spending, disguised as "capital investment." They want the Administration to be more specific about its proposal: how the Bank would be funded, what kind of investments it would fund and how the $30 billion capital would be repaid. "If this is more of the same stimulus spending, we won’t support it," Kevin Smith, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has been quoted as saying.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman John Mica (R-FL) thinks state-level infrastructure banks would be a more appropriate means of financing major transportation projects at the state and local level. Decentralized infrastructure financing would "keep the federal financing bureaucracy at a minimum and maximize states’ financial capabilities," according to the House transportation reauthorization proposal.

Senate Democrats, while not necessarily opposed to another fiscal stimulus, want quick results. They fear that a centralized Infrastructure Bank, with its complex governance structure and layers of bureaucratic conditions, requirements and approvals would be far too slow and cumbersome to be an effective job generator. One or two years could pass before large-scale projects appropriate for Bank financing would get evaluated, selected, approved and under construction, one Senate aide told us.

What is more, there is a lack of agreement on how the proposed Infrastructure Bank should function. The Administration wants a mechanism that would serve several different purposes. In the words of Undersecretary for Transportation Policy Roy Kienitz who testified at a September 21, 2010 hearing of the Senate Banking Committee, "We need a financing institution that can provide a range of financing options— grants for projects that by their nature cannot generate revenue, and loans and loan guarantees for projects that can pay for their construction costs out of a revenue stream. In short, we need the Infrastructure Bank that the President has proposed."

But, "banks don’t give out grants, they give out loans. There is already a mechanism for giving out federal transportation grants — it’s called the highway bill," countered Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee.

If the proposed entity is to be a true bank – as proposed in a recent bill sponsored by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and endorsed by the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce– its scope would be confined to projects that can repay interest and principal on their loans with a dedicated stream of revenue — in other words, the Bank could finance only income-generating facilities such as toll roads and bridges. By all estimates, such projects will constitute only a small fraction of the overall inventory of transportation improvements needed to be financed in the years ahead, the bulk of which will be reconstruction of existing toll-free Interstate highways. Hence, a true Infrastructure Bank would be of limited help in creating jobs and reviving the economy, critics argue.

"A national infrastructure bank must garner broad bipartisan support to move forward," says Michael Likosky, Director of NYU's Center on Law & Public Finance and author of a recent book, Obama's Bank:Financing a Durable New Deal. "This means no grants, a multi-sector reach and a realistic idea of what projects will benefit straight away."

President Obama was expected to include the infrastructure bank among his recommended stimulus measures when he lays out his new job-creation plan before the congressional deficit reduction committee in early September. But lately, he seems to have put the idea on the back burner and turned his attention to more traditional "shovel-ready" highway investments using existing financing programs. His advisers may have concluded that the Bank will do little to stimulate immediate job creation--- and that the proposal will find little support among congressional Democrats and Republicans alike. If so, check off the Infrastructure Bank as an idea whose time had come and gone.


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