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Infrastructure Investment and U.S. Competitiveness

Authors: Robert Puentes, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution Felix G. Rohatyn, Special Advisor to the Chairman and CEO, Lazard Freres and Co. LLC Richard Little, Director, Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy Stephen Goldsmith, New York City Deputy Mayor for Operations
Interviewer(s): Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
April 5, 2011

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[Editor's Note: This is part of CFR's Renewing America initiative , which examines how domestic policies will influence U.S. economic and military strength and its ability to act in the world.]

Most experts agree the United States must address the nation's aging network of roads, bridges, airports, railways, power grids, water systems, and other public works to maintain its global economic competitiveness. In 2010, President Barack Obama proposed a national infrastructure bank (PDF) that would leverage public and private capital to fund improvements, and in April 2011 a bipartisan coalition of senators put forward a similar concept (NYT).

Four experts discuss how the United States can best move forward on infrastructure development. Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution suggests focusing on increasing exports, low-carbon technology, innovation, and opportunity. Renowned financier Felix Rohatyn endorses the concept of a federally owned but independently operated national infrastructure bank that would provide a "guidance-system" for federal dollars. Infrastructure policy authority Richard Little argues that adequate revenue streams are the "first step in addressing this problem," stressing "revenue-based models" as essential. Deputy Mayor of New York City Stephen Goldsmith says that the "most promising ideas" in this policy area involve public-private partnerships.

Robert Puentes, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

Infrastructure is central to U.S. prosperity and global competitiveness. It matters because state-of-the-art transportation, telecommunications, and energy networks--the connective tissue of the nation--are critical to moving goods, ideas, and workers quickly and efficiently and providing a safe, secure, and competitive climate for business operations.

But for too long, the nation's infrastructure policies have been kept separate and apart from the larger conversation about the U.S. economy. The benefits of infrastructure are frequently framed around short-term goals about job creation. While the focus on employment growth is certainly understandable, it is not the best way to target and deploy infrastructure dollars. And it means so-called "shovel ready projects" are all we can do while long-term investments in the smart grid, high-speed rail, and modern ports are stuck at the starting gate.

We often fail to make infrastructure investments in an economy-enhancing way. This is why the proposal for a national infrastructure bank is so important.

So in addition to the focus on job growth in the short term, we need to rebalance the American economy for the long term on several key elements: higher exports, to take advantage of rising global demand; low-carbon technology, to lead the clean-energy revolution; innovation, to spur growth through ideas and their deployment; and greater opportunity, to reverse the troubling, decades-long rise in inequality. Infrastructure is fundamental to each of those elements.

Yet while we know America's infrastructure needs are substantial, we have not been able to pull together the resources to make the requisite investments. And when we do, we often fail to make infrastructure investments in an economy-enhancing way. This is why the proposal for a national infrastructure bank is so important. If designed and implemented appropriately, it would be a targeted mechanism to deal with critical new investments on a merit basis, while adhering to market forces and leveraging the private capital we know is ready to invest here in the United States.

Building the next economy will require deliberate and purposeful action, across all levels of government, in collaboration with the private and nonprofit sectors. Infrastructure is a big piece of that.

Felix G. Rohatyn, Special Advisor to the Chairman and CEO, Lazard Freres and Co. LLC

While America's economic competitors and partners around the world make massive investments in public infrastructure, our nation's roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, airports and railways, ports and dams, waterlines, and air-control systems are rapidly and dangerously deteriorating.

China, India, and European nations are spending--or have spent--the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars on efficient public transportation, energy, and water systems. Meanwhile, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2005 that it would take $1.6 trillion simply to make U.S. infrastructure dependable and safe. The obvious, negative impact of this situation on our global competitiveness, quality of life, and ability to create American jobs is a problem we no longer can ignore.

One way to finance the rebuilding of our country is by creating a national infrastructure bank that is owned by the federal government but not operated by it. The bank would be similar to the World Bank and European Investment Bank. Funded with a capital base of $50 to $60 billion, the infrastructure bank would have the power to insure bonds of state and local governments, provide targeted and precise subsidies, and issue its own thirty- to fifty-year bonds to finance itself with conservative 3:1 gearing. Such a bank could easily leverage $250 billion of new capital in its first several years and as much as $1 trillion over a decade.

Such a bank could easily leverage $250 billion of new capital in its first several years and as much as $1 trillion over a decade.

Run by an independent board nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the bank would finance projects of regional and national significance, directing funds to their most important uses. It would provide a guidance system for the $73 billion that the federal government spends annually on infrastructure and avoid wasteful "earmark" appropriations. The bank's source of funding would come from funds now dedicated to existing federal programs.

Legislation has been proposed that would create such an infrastructure bank. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) has introduced a House bill, and Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) have brought forward legislation in the Senate. The Senate bill, with $10 billion of initial funding, is a modest proposal but passing it would give us a strong start.

We should regard infrastructure spending as an investment rather than an expense and should establish a national, capital budget for infrastructure. While this idea is not new, it has been unable to gain political traction. From a federal budgeting standpoint, it would be the wisest thing to do. President Obama and Congress should take action promptly.

Richard Little, Director, Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy

The massive network of seaports, waterways, railroads, and highways we built in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were designed to unlock the nation's natural resources, agriculture, and manufacturing strength and bring these products to market. Today, despite a dynamically changing economy, these sectors along with trade and transportation still account for more than a quarter of U.S. GDP or $3.5 trillion, but many transport linkages have become bottlenecks due to long-delayed repair and replacement. The entire U.S. economy, as well as consumers, would benefit from a more efficient and resilient supply chain.

Unfortunately, for far too long, Americans have been lulled by their political leadership into a false sense of entitlement. Faced with the prospect of raising taxes or charging fees to cover the cost of maintaining these systems, they have chosen to do neither. As a result, our highways and bridges decline at alarming rates. Most of the other systems vital to our interests suffer the same fate. Fixing this is well within our control, the challenge will be to muster the will to do so.

Without a move to revenue-based models, necessary renewal of critical infrastructure will be long delayed, if provided at all.

The first step in addressing this problem will be to ensure that adequate revenue streams are in place. Whether this revenue comes from the fuel tax, tolls, or other mechanisms is less important than having the funds to work with. Without a move to revenue-based models, necessary renewal of critical infrastructure will be long delayed, if provided at all. We can show that we value these systems by agreeing to pay for their upkeep or own both the responsibility for economic decline and its consequences.

Stephen Goldsmith, New York City Deputy Mayor for Operations

Investment in America's physical infrastructure is directly tied to economic development. Businesses and the workforces they attract consider infrastructure when deciding where to locate. Too often, however, pressed by day-to-day concerns, state and local governments fail to adequately plan and invest in infrastructure. Tight budgets make it easy for officials to rationalize the deferral of investment until a time when surpluses return.

Unfortunately, this pattern has been repeated for decades, and the accumulation of deferred maintenance and deferred investment in future infrastructure has led to an unsatisfactory status quo. To ensure America's future competitiveness in the global marketplace, we must rethink our approach to the construction and financing of infrastructure. And in this policy area, many of the most promising ideas for unlocking public value involve public-private partnerships.

Public-private partnerships can produce access to capital that will accelerate the building of critical infrastructure in sectors ranging from transportation to wastewater treatment.

The key question in a debate about infrastructure should be: "How can we produce the most public value for the money?" Answering this question should lead us to pursue both operational and financing innovations. The private sector has an important role to play in both. Public officials can produce more value for the dollar by better structuring the design, construction, operation, and financing of infrastructure projects that produce more lifecycle benefits and fewer handoffs among various private parties. A private partner can often achieve savings for government by identifying operational efficiencies and assuming risk formerly held by the public sector. Unlike the traditional model for bridge construction in which one firm designs, one firm builds, one company finances, and the public maintains, an arrangement which gives the private firm an ongoing responsibility for maintenance or durability will encourage design optimization and likely increase the length of the asset's lifecycle.

Public-private partnerships can produce access to capital that will accelerate the building of critical infrastructure in sectors ranging from transportation to wastewater treatment. However, maximizing their potential to solve America's infrastructure challenges also requires governments to create a regulatory climate conducive to them. Government agencies should be given maximum flexibility to enter into partnerships with the private sector; and private companies should not have to navigate unreasonable tax laws that limit their ability to partner with government entities to produce better public value.

At a time when every dollar counts, extracting maximum public value out of infrastructure investment is crucial. The private sector can be a strong partner to government. By prioritizing long-term value creation over short-term politics, America can bridge the infrastructure divide and ensure our continued prosperity.

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