Oct. 19, 2010: a large rusty metal wall is seen in North Bergen, N.J., covering construction at the ARC Tunnel. N.J. Gov. Chris Christie decided to kill the $9 billion-plus rail tunnel under the Hudson River.
"On Right Road with Infrastructure Bank"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
March 21, 2011
Author: Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
WE HAVE been having the same conversation for decades, a never-ending debate about how best to address America's infrastructure woes, from our decaying roads to our outdated train systems to our falling bridges. Moreover, a 2009 infrastructure report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers — which gave a "D" in 15 categories, from roads to levees — proves America has not only lost its capacity to think big about public works but that we can barely survive on the foundations already in place.
But last week, Senator John Kerry introduced a bipartisan proposal to reinvigorate public works spending through an "infrastructure bank" that would provide loans and loan guarantees for bridge, highway, and rail projects.
The idea of an infrastructure bank has been around for nearly 20 years, but Kerry's proposal provides important amendments that are worth the $10 billion outlay envisioned in the legislation. The Building and Upgrading Infrastructure for Long-Term Development Act creates an American Infrastructure Financing Authority that would serve as an independent fund for the "most important and economically viable" projects in the country. The Authority would be prohibited from providing more than 50 percent of a project's cost, instead relying heavily on private-sector commitment to support projects with national or regional significance that would ultimately be backed by a dedicated revenue stream, such as toll roads, development plans, and freight lines.
The creation of a financing authority is also a significant change to President Obama's proposal for a $30 billion federal infrastructure investment, a proposal that has limited support in these fiscal times. The authority would be about loans, not grants, and could provide the seed money for up to $600 billion in private infrastructure investments in its first decade.
The BUILD Act focuses investments on three particularly worrisome public woes — bridges, highways, and rail projects — rather than trying to solve all civil engineering problems at once. It does not put as its primary focus job creation (the focal point of most stimulus talk), but on good-old public works priorities. Most importantly, it is not a grant to states and localities that tend to focus on, well, local projects. An independent, Senate-confirmed authority would prioritize investments in only regional and national proposals that had private backing to support the effort.
The BUILD Act is necessary because, given the nature of our federal system, what we do commit to is so limited in impact that we have tied our national projects to parochial priorities — to what can be done rather than what should be done. And it isn't working. A high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando hardly seems the visionary image of a new world transportation order, and thanks to Florida Governor Rick Scott's veto of the effort, it won't be. Scott returned $2.4 billion in federal funding for the train line because of fears that the fiscally strapped state would be stuck with cost overruns. Similarly, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed a federally financed rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan for the same reasons.
Cost overruns for fiscally strained states are a good reason to retract from commitments. But, in all the debate over Scott's decision, few seemed to notice how pathetic we have become as visionaries when our most ambitious proposal was an 84-mile train ride to Disney World, one that would only shave a few minutes off the same road trip. That Florida had done all the planning and necessary legwork to begin the "shovel ready" project seemed more significant than asking why would we invest federal money in such a seemingly unnecessary proposal. The rail line would have been as futuristic seeming as the Space Mountain ride seems today. It would have been embarrassing proof that America had lost its capacity to think big.
Projects under consideration by American Infrastructure Financing Authority would still need to meet the economic, technical, and lengthy environmental standards that often curtail big projects, and it may be worth having the Authority determine whether those standards should be amended to promote national public work programs. The BUILD Act may not get us all the way to Tomorrowland, but it may be our only hope to get us past Disney World.
Juliette Kayyem, a guest columnist, is former homeland security adviser for Massachusetts and most recently served as assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security.
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