Getting serious about infrastructure

May 19, 2019

The Hill

By Philip K. Howard

Fixing America’s decrepit infrastructure enjoys rare bipartisan support. But the recent announcement of a $2 trillion plan by President Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was quickly doused by reality. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said the proposal would go nowhere without permitting reform. Leaders in Congress, including some Democrats, said they would not support any significant increase in gas taxes to fund it.

No one seriously doubts the need to modernize America’s infrastructure. The main stumbling block is broad distrust of Washington’s ability to deliver any large public works initiative. Getting past this impasse offers a unique opportunity to reboot the rules, cutting effective costs by over 50 percent. Here are three reforms that should be enacted as the foundation of any infrastructure bill:

Permitting reform: In 2009, Congress authorized $800 billion to stimulate the economy, promising to rebuild infrastructure. In the final tally, a grand total of 3.6 percent was spent on transportation infrastructure. Projects never got out of the gate, because, as President Obama put it, “There’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.

The red tape is also cripplingly expensive. The 2015 Common Good report, “Two Years, Not Ten Years,” found that a six-year delay in permitting more than doubles the effective cost of projects, and lengthy environmental reviews are generally harmful to the environment because they prolong polluting bottlenecks.   

The reform needed is not to weaken environmental rules but to create clear lines of authority to make the decisions needed to adhere to deadlines. For example, a project with minimal environmental impact — such as raising the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge using existing foundations — does not need a 10,000-page analysis (plus another 10,000 pages of appendices). Common Good has a three-page legislative proposal that gives designated officials the job of deciding the proper scope of environmental review and resolving disagreements among different agencies.  

Discipline in prioritizing and procuring projects: Cynics don’t have to look far to see the likelihood of wasting public funds on pork such as “the bridge to nowhere.” Just as most of the 2009 stimulus was distributed to states in block grants, so too it is likely that much of any large infrastructure initiative will end up being distributed for political purposes.   

Nor should the price tag of infrastructure be inflated to meet unrelated social goals. The goal is modern roads, locks and electrical grids — not, as Pelosi and Schumer stated, an “imperative to involve women, veteran and minority-owned businesses.”

Congress should create an independent National Infrastructure Board, using the model of base-closing commissions, to set priorities for use of public infrastructure funds. That’s how Australia does it — it receives applications from states and then announces who gets federal funds.  

A National Infrastructure Board could avoid pork barrel projects and avoid use of critical infrastructure as pawns in unrelated political disputes. The Trump administration early on highlighted the new Gateway rail tunnel into Manhattan as a critical need of the Northeast. This $30 billion project is vital not only for commuters and rail travelers, but also for vehicular traffic. Gridlock would extend for 25 miles if one of the two existing rail tunnels shuts down long term.  Now that project is being held up because President Trump is using it as a political chip in a running dispute with Sens. Schumer and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).   

The National Infrastructure Board also could oversee contracting policies, to avoid waste of inflexible procurement practices and local featherbedding.   

Funding infrastructure: User fees will only repay a small portion of the cost of most public infrastructure. Republicans are correct that Washington is filled with wasteful programs that can be cut. Democrats (supported by the Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable) are correct that gas taxes, last set in 1993, have not kept up with inflation. The obvious political compromise is for Congress to use both sources and create a funding plan that is half cuts and half new taxes. A 25-cent hike in gas taxes would raise about $40 billion each year. The 2010 Simpson-Bowles debt reduction plan offers a road map for cutting obsolete subsidies, such as New Deal farm subsidies.    

Modernizing America’s infrastructure would be a boon to the economy — enhancing competitiveness and creating over a million jobs that cannot go offshore. It would result in a greener footprint. The case for funding is compelling if accompanied by streamlined permitting and a National Infrastructure Board to avoid waste. Abandoning the legacy bureaucracies that stifle infrastructure projects might be the most important change of all — rebooting the rules could demonstrate what’s needed to fix broken government.