States Seek to Become More Self-Reliant for Infrastructure

During his March 29 visit to the privately built and financed PortMiami tunnel project, President Obama unveiled a new infrastructure plan. His latest proposal---costing $21 billion--- includes a renewed call for a National Infrastructure Bank capitalized at $10 billion,  a  $7 billion  "America Fast Forward Bonds" program modeled after the former Build America Bonds;  and a sum of $4 billion in direct loans and loan guarantees. The White House announcement did not make it clear whether  this latest infrastructure initiative --- " to encourage private investment in America's infrastructure" ---replaces or is in addition to the $50 billion "fix-it-first" infrastructure plan that the President announced in his State-of-the-Union address less than two months ago (see, "Infrastructure Advocacy and Public Credibility," InnoBrief, Vol. 24, No. 2, February 20).

Decidedly, infrastructure investment remains on the President's mind. It also continues to generate headlines. Just a week earlier, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its latest  "report card" giving the nation a D for highways and estimating the investment needs in surface transportation to the year 2020 to amount to a staggering $1.723 trillion. With expected funding during the same period amounting only to $877 billion, the funding gap comes out to be an astronomical sum of $846 billion--- more than $100 billion per year. As if to reinforce the ASCE conclusions, the Washington Post came out with a front-page story about the deteriorating state of the Capital Beltway, "a politically iconic and locally vital highway... dying beneath your turning wheels"  (Beneath the Surface, the Beltway Crumbles, March 31, 2013)

What kind of an impact the President's repeated pleas, combined with the ASCE report card and alarming press stories of "crumbling " infrastructure, will have on public opinion and congressional attitudes remains to be seen. As we have noted earlier, they come at a time of severe budget pressures and intense Republican efforts to curb excessive discretionary spending. To be successful,  pro-infrastructure advocates must explain to the skeptical lawmakers where the money would come from.  "At some point somebody  has to pay the bill," House Speaker John Boehner pointedly remarked in reaction to Obama's latest infrastructure proposal. The advocates also must persuade fiscally conservative House members that there are urgent and compeling reasons to boost spending on public works that override the imperative to reduce the deficit and get the nation's fiscal house in order. 

Second, the nation's taxpayers must become convinced that spending more on transportation will make a difference in practical terms such as easing congestion and improving the lot of  commuters, and that the money will not be wasted on questionable projects that have little to do with improving mobility. "The Bridge to Nowhere" as a symbol of wasteful spending still lives in the collective public consciousness. 

Third, infrastructure alarmists must contend with the upbeat conclusions of a Reason Foundation study, "Are Highways Crumbling?" That study has found that  America's highways and bridges are in a far better condition today than they were 20 years ago. "There are still plenty of problems to fix, but our roads and bridges aren't crumbling," said David Hartgen, lead author of the Reason study. "The overall condition of the public road system is getting better and you can actually make the case that it has never been in better shape." The study affirms what the traveling public experiences every day ---- that  the nation's highways and bridges not only are not "crumbling" but in most places are holding up pretty well. "Should I believe the pundits or my own eyes," asked Charles Lane, a Washington Post editorial writer, in a much-quoted column after having traveled thousands of miles "without actually seeing any crumbling roads."  (The U.S. Infrastructure Argument that Crumbles Upon Examination, October 31, 2012). 

Fourth, as one highly knowledgeable reader of ours (a civil engineer) has observed, "we must get an objective, precise and quantifiable assessment of bridge conditions  before launching full bore into repair or replacement actions" costing billions of dollars. "Today," he wrote, " no one, and I mean no one  has an objective, clear and precise understanding of the actual condition of America's bridges." Before asking taxpayers for billions of dollars to fix a problem based on subjective visual assessments of bridge conditions,  we want to be very sure that we have accurate data to back up our position, our reader concluded. His remarks about bridges could equally well be applied to the condition of the nation's roads.

Lastly, infrastructure advocates must overcome a cynical perception, common among the public, that pressures to increase federal funding for transportation are nothing more than special interest pleadings by interest groups that stand to profit from higher levels of public spending (ASCE is one of them, raising questions as to its objectivity, several observers have noted). 

As one transportation advocate at a recent conference observed, "there is an enormous disconnect between us and the American public" --- a disconnect that may not be easy to overcome.

States Are Acting on their Own

As we have argued in recent columns, no one disputes the infrastructure advocates’ claim that some of America’s transportation facilities, such as the Capital Beltway, are reaching the limit of their useful life and need reconstruction. Nor does any one disagree about the need to expand infrastructure to meet the needs of a growing population. But fiscal conservatives among infrastructure advocates (and we count ourselves among them) contend that this does not rise to the level of a national crisis requiring a massive $50-70 billion federal crash program as proposed by the President, or the expenditure of more than $100 billion per year as recommended by ASCE.

Instead, the challenge can be met if each state did its part to incrementally, over a period of years, bring its transportation facilities up to a "state of good repair" using its own gas tax revenues  and its formula allocation of the Highway Trust fund dollars. As numerous news dispatches attest, that is precisely what's happening (see below). A growing number of states are not waiting for the federal government to come to the rescue. They are using their own resources and raising additional revenue to pay for reconstruction of their aging facilities-- "one lane at a time" if necessary---and keep their transportation systems in good working condition. "Governors and state legislatures realize that the level of federal assistance beyond 2014 is highly uncertain and they are acting on a credible assumption that federal funding will remain at current levels or may even be cut back," an association executive who is familiar with the thinking of senior-level state officials, told us.

What about  large-scale reconstruction and capacity-expansion projects that require billions of dollars---transportation  investments that are beyond the states'  fiscal capacity to fund on a pay-as-you-go basis? Those investments,  provided they are credit-worthy (i.e. are revenue producing or backed by dedicated tax revenue),  will be mostly financed through long-term credit instruments  and public-private partnerships. The future of infrastructure megaprojects is intimately tied to the financial involvement of the private sector and to a wider use of  tolling, "availability payments,"  and innovative credit instruments such as TIFIA and private activity bonds (PABs), a veteran facilitator of public-private partnerships told us. " President Obama was right to have shined a spotlight on the PortMiami tunnel project and drawn attention to the importance of private investment in major transportation infrastructure. The Highway Trust Fund no longer can serve that purpose."

The scenario we have suggested above---i.e., having states assume financial responsibility for fixing their aging transportation systems, while relying on debt financing for major facility reconstruction and system expansion---makes practical sense in view of the uncertain future level of  federal transportation funding.  It also may constitute a way to save the Highway Trust Fund from insolvency and provide a lasting solution to the federal transportation funding dilemma.

NOTE: States that recently have undertaken to raise additional funds for transportation include: Virginia and  Maryland (broad transportation funding overhaul  that includes a dedicated sales tax applied to the wholesale price of gasoline.  A sales tax, it has been argued, is no less a "user fee" than the gas tax since every consumer who pays a sales tax also is served by or "uses"  the highway system for goods delivery );  Arkansas (one-half cent sales tax increase to back a $1.3 billion bond issue to fund highway construction over the next ten years); Massachusetts ($13.7 billion bond-financed transportation plan); Maine ($100 million transportation bond proposal);  Michigan ($1.5 billion road plan funded with vehicle registration fees and a tax on fuel at the wholesale level); Missouri (proposal for a dedicated one-cent sales tax for transportation; the tax is expected to raise $7.9 billion over ten years); New Hampshire (12-cent hike in the gas tax over three years approved by the House; Senate approval uncertain);  Ohio (turnpike toll-backed $1.5 billion bond issue for highway and bridge improvements); Texas (statewide tolling);  Wisconsin ($824-million boost to the state transportation fund);  Wyoming (10-cent fuel tax increase, the first in 15 years); and California, Oregon and Washington (exploring new mechanisms for project finance through the cooperative West Coast Infrastructure Exchange).

Recent major transportation infrastructure projects largely financed with long-term credit instruments rather than federal dollars include: the I-495 Beltway HOT lanes project in Northern Virginia; New York's Tappan Zee Bridge replacement; the San Francisco Bay Bridge Eastern Span replacement; the I-5 Columbia River Crossing;  the Highway 520 floating bridge in Seattle, the Midtown tunnel linking Norfolk and Portsmouth, VA, East End Crossing over the Ohio River, and the PortMiami Tunnel.

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