Tag: infrastructure

No NYT, the Public Doesn’t Need to ‘Pay and Pay’ for Private Infrastructure

The Trump administration’s proposal to repair and expand America’s roads, bridges, ports and airports includes the expanded use of public-private partnerships (P3s). Under P3s, state and local governments award franchises to private companies that agree to pay for and manage the infrastructure in exchange for the companies receiving toll payments from future users. A number of P3 projects currently operate in the United States, and they are common in other developed nations.

Despite the growing embrace of these projects by policymakers around the world, the Trump proposal is being met with skepticism. For example, the New York Times dropped this article last week ahead of Trump administration efforts to promote the proposal. According to the article, “experts agree” that “there is little hard evidence” that such projects produce long-term benefits to the public as compared to traditional government-provided infrastructure. (That “agreement” came as news to many transportation experts.)

At heart, the article charges that P3 programs are “win/no lose” proposals for the private firms: if the projects prove popular, the firms profit—sometimes handsomely, to the detriment of consumers. But if the new infrastructure doesn’t get many toll-paying users, the financial losses from the projects fall on taxpayers.

To illustrate this, the NYT cites California State Route 91, one of the first P3s in the United States. Initially intended to reduce congestion, the project awarded a private company the right to build and operate a special four-lane toll road in the middle of the highway. The road was “congestion priced,” meaning the tolls fluctuated in order to limit use just enough to guarantee the free flow of traffic.

The original lease on the road included a noncompete clause that limited the state’s ability to add additional lanes to the non-P3 part of SR-91 or to build parallel infrastructure. This resulted in heavy congestion on the old lanes, pushing motorists onto the toll lanes and producing a financial windfall for the toll company. That ultimately prompted Orange County to buy out the toll company for $207 million in 2003.

However, the SR-91 problem is not inherent to P3s. It arose as a result of the conditions under which the franchise was arranged. Traditionally, P3s have been awarded through negotiations between private companies and transportation authorities, leading to high initial private investments and uncertainty about demand for the road. That risk, in turn, encourages toll road companies to want protections like the noncompete clause.

Federal Role in Infrastructure

As part of its 2018 budget proposal, the Trump administration has introduced a plan to improve the nation’s infrastructure. The administration intends to reduce regulatory barriers on infrastructure projects and encourage greater private investment. It has also proposed increasing federal spending on infrastructure by $200 billion over 10 years.

A new Cato study provides input to the debate by examining infrastructure ownership and funding. Some people assume that the federal government plays the main role in infrastructure, but the states and private sector own 97 percent of U.S. nondefense infrastructure, and they fund 94 percent of it.

However, the federal government is the tail that wags the dog—its regulations, taxes, and subsidies affect the level and efficiency of state, local, and private infrastructure investment. The study argues that reforms to these federal interventions and privatization are the paths to higher-performance infrastructure.

Trump’s Infrastructure Plan

Greater reliance on user fees, federal loans rather than grants, and corporatization are three keys to the Trump administration’s infrastructure initiative released as a part of its 2018 budget. The plan will “seek long-term reforms on how infrastructure projects are regulated, funded, delivered, and maintained,” says the six-page document. More federal funding “is not the solution,” the document says; instead, it is to “fix underlying incentives, procedures, and policies.”

In building the Interstate Highway System, the fact sheet observes, “the Federal Government played a key role” in collecting and distributing monies to “fund a project with a Federal purpose.” Since then, however, those user fees, mainly gas tax receipts, have been “inefficiently invested” in “non-federal infrastructure.”

As a result, the federal government today “acts as a complicated, costly middleman between the collection of revenue and the expenditure of those funds by States and localities.” To fix this, the administration will “explore” whether transferring “responsibilities to the States is appropriate.”

The document contains a number of specific proposals:

  • Allow states to toll interstate and other federally funded highways;
  • Encourage states to fix congestion using “congestion pricing, enhanced transit services, increased telecommuting and flex scheduling, and deployment of advanced technology”;
  • Corporatize air traffic control, as many other developed countries have done;
  • Streamline the environmental review process by having a one-stop federal permit process and “curtailing needless litigation”;
  • Expand the TIFIA loan program and lift the existing cap on private activity bonds, both of which will make more money available for infrastructure without increasing federal deficits.

The paper also includes proposals for reforming inland waterways, the Power Marketing Administration, and water infrastructure finance. Like the transportation proposals, these call for increased reliance on user fees, corporatization, privatization, or loans rather than grants.

“Corporatization” means creating a non-profit or for-profit corporation that may be government owned but doesn’t necessarily rely on taxpayer subsidies. Comsat is a classic example, but Canada and other countries’ air traffic control systems work in this way.

Except for air traffic control reform, Trump’s plan isn’t fleshed out in detail. But these ideas have all been tossed around enough that everyone pretty much knows what they mean. Most importantly, they mean a significant change in the way Washington deals with infrastructure.

Because it doesn’t contain a list of projects that members of Congress could take credit for, the plan has received relatively little notice in the media. Democrats, of course, are unhappy with it, but they would be unhappy no matter what Trump proposed.

One of the more controversial proposals is to allow the states to toll interstate highways. “I don’t like paying for a road twice,” Representative Sam Graves (R-MO), who chairs the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told The Hill. But, given that Congress has had to inject tens of billions of dollars of general funds into the highway trust fund in recent years, what makes Graves thinks existing user fees are paying for the roads now? All roads need maintenance and occasional rehabilitation, so the fact that user fees paid for construction 50 years ago doesn’t mean that costs stop.

The most important point is that Trump wants user fees to pay a greater share of infrastructure costs. Naturally, the transit lobby, which represents the most heavily subsidized form of transportation, per unit of output, is upset about this. But Trump’s agenda sounds good to anyone who wants an efficient, user-fee-driven infrastructure program.

Trump’s Bad Economic Reasoning on Infrastructure

Last night’s address to Congress by President Trump was devoid of detail on infrastructure investment. But in justifying his desire to harness $1 trillion of public and private funds for “new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways”, the President used two lines of bad economic reasoning sadly all too prevalent in public debate on this issue.

First was to invoke the building of the interstate highway system. “The time has come,” Trump declared, “for a new program of national rebuilding.” The implication: the interstate highway system was good for the economy, so we should invest more in roads today - a common rhetorical technique, but one which confuses average with marginal.

Previous economic research has indeed found that the construction of the interstate highway system substantially boosted productivity for industries associated with road use. But the same research finds those benefits to be largely one-offs, meaning this analysis does nothing to inform us about new decisions. In fact, more recent work has found that too many new highways have been built between 1983 and 2003, and that marginal extensions to the highway system tend not to increase social welfare, because the cost savings of reducing travel times are small relative to incomes and prices.

In other words, building a highway system can boost growth. Building a second highway system? Not so much. Rather than appealing to grand projects based on historical experience, all new government projects should stand up on their own merits – ideally having high benefit to cost ratios and being things that would not be undertaken by the private sector.

The second mistake was to highlight “creating millions of new jobs” as an aim or positive of any infrastructure spending. When the government is investing to build something, it should aim to do so most efficiently. “Jobs” in this sense are a cost, not a benefit, and ones “created” only come through the diversion of resources and opportunities in other parts of the economy.

Upon visiting an Asian country in the 1960s, Milton Friedman is frequently quoted as reacting to the absence of heavy machinery in a canal build by asking why the project was being undertaken by men with shovels. Upon being told it was a “jobs program,” he is said to have remarked: “Oh, I see. I thought you were trying to build a canal. If you really want to create jobs, then by all means give these men spoons, not shovels.”

If one is concerned with improving the economic growth potential of the economy, then you would base both the selection of projects and the means of undertaking them according to that objective. Sadly, when governments are involved, other ambitions (be it stimulating particular regions, appeasing certain interests, obtaining political prestige or facilitating observable jobs) tend to interfere with the stated aim. The constant talk of the benefits of wise, productive investment is an ambition, rather than something we should expect.

Condition of Highway Bridges

Mainstream media reporting on infrastructure seems to be driven by the lobby groups that are pushing for more federal spending. A Washington Post article today reflects two popular lobbyist themes: “the bridges are falling down” and “the federal government needs to solve the problem.” For today’s story, the Post could have saved the reporter’s salary and simply asked the press office at the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) to write it.  

The headline, “More than 55,000 bridges need repair or replacement,” captures the bridges-falling-down theme. That figure is the number of “structurally deficient” bridges, which the Post sources from the ARTBA. But the story does not mention that these bridges (56,007 according to federal data) are 9.1 percent of the nation’s 614,387 bridges, which is the lowest such percentage in 24 years. The chart below shows that the share of bridges in this category fell from 21.7 percent in 1992 to just 9.1 percent in 2016.

Confusion over Infrastructure

The Christian Science Monitor thinks that the Democrats wrote their infrastructure plan as a “political bridge to President Trump.” Fox News thinks that Trump might “get on board” the Democrats’ plan. Statements like these show that many reporters–and by extension members of the public–haven’t yet figured out the real issues behind the infrastructure debate.

As Business Insider points out, there’s a bigger difference between the two sides over “how it’s paid for” than “what gets built.” The Democrats want the federal government to spend a trillion dollars, money it would have to borrow. Trump wants private investors to spend their own money. Never the twain shall meet. 

But Business Insider doesn’t understand how Trump’s idea will work. If Trump is going to rely on the private sector, it says, then only projects that generate revenue will be built because “projects that don’t generate revenue for the private sector generally don’t get financed.” But there are two kinds of public-private partnerships. The kind that Business Insider is writing about is called demand risk because the private partner takes the risk that tolls, fares, or other user fees won’t repay the cost.

The second kind is called availability payments because the government agrees to pay the private partner the cost of the project over time, whether or not anyone pays user fees or even uses it at all. In this kind, the public takes the risk. While I much prefer the demand-risk form because I think nearly all infrastructure ought to be paid for out of user fees, Trump may be happy to go with availability payments so long as state or local governments are making the payments, not the feds. Democrats in Congress don’t like either one because they short-circuit their ability to appear to give gifts to their constituents.

Trump and Democrats Issue Competing Infrastructure Plans

Senate Democrats have proposed an infrastructure plan that calls for $1 trillion in federal deficit spending. In detail, the plan calls for:

  • $100 billion for reconstructing roads and bridges;
  • $100 billion to “revitalize Main Street,” that is, subsidies to New Urbanism and affordable housing;
  • $10 billion for TIGER stimulus projects;
  • $110 billion for reconstructing water and sewer;
  • $50 billion for modernizing rail (Amtrak and freight railroad) infrastructure;
  • $130 billion to repair and expand transit;
  • $75 billion for rebuilding public schools;
  • $30 billion to improve airports;
  • $10 billion for ports and waterways;
  • $25 billion to improve communities’ resistance to natural disasters;
  • $100 billion for a next-generation electrical grid;
  • $20 billion for broadband;
  • $20 billion for public lands and tribal infrastructure;
  • $10 billion for VA hospitals;
  • $10 billion for an infrastructure bank;
  • $200 billion for “vital projects” that “think big,” such as building “the world’s fastest trains.”

In response, someone has leaked what is supposedly the Trump administration’s own list of 50 infrastructure priority projects. It includes such boondoggles as a Dallas-Houston passenger rail line, the congestion-inducing Maryland Purple Line, the $14 billion Hudson River tunnels, and completion of the $2.2-billion-per-mile Second Avenue Subway. Except for the Dallas-Houston line, most of the passenger rail projects were already pretty well decided, but they are still foolish investments that will cost a lot and return little to the economy. There are supposedly more than 250 other projects on a priority list, but it isn’t absolutely certain that this list was endorsed by Trump or merely proposed to him.

Update: While I am now certain that the supposed Trump priority list was really “fake”—that is, not really from the administration—it appears that the reason why the Dallas-Houston line was on the list is that it is supposed to be entirely privately financed. While I am skeptical that private funders could profitably build and operate such a line, if they could, it would be appropriate (though unnecessary) to have it on such a priority list.

What most people have been calling Trump’s infrastructure plan calls for giving tax credits to private investors who spend money on these kind of infrastructure projects. This has some virtues over the Democratic proposal of direct federal spending:

  1. While the Democrats take a top-down approach dictating where the money will go, Trump leaves the setting of priorities to state and local governments, which have already approved most of the projects on his top-50 list;
  2. Where Democrats would commit the federal government to spend an arbitrary amount of money whether it needs to be spent or not, Trump lets state and local governments decide how much to spend and how they will pay for it;
  3. Where Democrats would add $1 trillion to the deficit, Trump relies on a tax credit program that will cost the feds no more than $167 billion per trillion in spending (less, obviously, if less than $1 trillion is spent);
  4. Where a lot of the Democrats’ money would go down a rat hole, at least some of federal tax credits that Trump’s plan would issue will be offset by the reduced use of tax-free municipal bonds and taxes paid by companies and workers earning the money.

Typical of central planners, the dollar figures in the Democrats’ plan are completely arbitrary.

  • Why should trains and transit, which carry 1 percent as many passenger miles as roads, get roughly as much money as roads and bridges (and probably more considering much of the $200 billion “vital infrastructure” fund would go for high-speed rail)?
  • Why spend $40 billion expanding transit and no money expanding highways when highway use is growing faster than transit in most places and most years?
  • Why no money for upgrading the air traffic control system (which is on Trump’s top-50 list)? I don’t support the use of tax dollars for such things, but it is a huge oversight from a plan predicated on the idea that federal central planners know the best places to spend your money.
  • Why $110 billion on water and sewer, and not $100 billion or $120 billion? It seems the point of these numbers is to add up to a nice round $1 trillion while divvying up the money to special-interest groups.
  • For that matter, why any at all on water, sewer, and the electrical grid when these should already be adequately funded through user fees?
  • Why is education even on the list when the federal government has never spent more than token amounts of money for school infrastructure?

My complaints about the Trump plan have been:

  1. It’s not really a plan—it’s just one funding tool;
  2. It doesn’t prevent state and local governments from spending the money on completely looney projects such as the aforementioned Dallas–Houston high-speed rail; and
  3. The private-partnership aspect has confused many people into believing that it will only fund projects that can be paid for out of user fees when in fact most projects would require state and local taxpayers to ultimately repay the private contractors out of tax dollars.

While these are valid complaints, the Trump plan is more bottom-up than top-down, as most if not all of the projects on the possibly fake priority list are supported by state and local officials. And while Trump brought a new idea to the table, the Democrats’ plan is the same old borrow-and-spend formula that they have used in the past. This is actually worse than tax-and-spend because taxing and spending doesn’t leave huge debt problems and interest payments for the future.

While we can hope that Trump’s projects will rely more on user fees more than taxes, at the moment the score has to be Trump 1/2, Democrats minus 1.

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