A national infrastructure bank could complement an extended Build America Bonds program, but no detailed proposal for the bank is ready to be unveiled soon by the Obama administration, officials told the Senate Banking Committee Tuesday.
Build America Bonds, the popular direct-pay, taxable municipal bond created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, could be “a useful tool” in conjunction with a national infrastructure bank, or NIB, that would attract private-sector investment, said Alan Krueger, the Treasury’s assistant secretary for economic policy. He reiterated the administration’s desire to see the BAB program made permanent at a 28% federal subsidy rate.
President Obama earlier this month proposed a $50 billion front-loaded six-year transportation bill and said lawmakers should create a national infrastructure bank. But the suggestion has not grown beyond a skeletal framework since then and a detailed proposal is not likely to be unveiled very soon, Roy Kienitz, the Department of Transportation’s undersecretary for policy, told the committee.
When questioned about the potential for leveraging federal funds, Kienitz said that current estimates of ratios are in the range of “somewhere between 8-to-1 and 12-to-1,” or $8 to $12 of total project financing for every $1 of federal funds in the infrastructure bank.
That amount is roughly equivalent to the total financing generated by a popular low-interest loan and credit assistance program currently run by the DOT. The TIFIA program, authorized by the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, has been cited by experts as a small-scale model for a national infrastructure bank. However, the program receives limited funding and is over-subscribed.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., argued lawmakers should create a new mechanism with a national reach to relieve the strain of funding infrastructure on state and local governments. “We need something more than the municipal bond system that is already struggling to support 80% of the infrastructure” in the country, he said.
He added that the European Investment Bank, an infrastructure bank servicing the European Union, financed $350 billion of projects between 2005 and 2009. The “most efficient way that we could galvanize the private sector” to inject capital into the American infrastructure market is by creating an NIB whose funds could be leveraged, Kerry said.
Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the committee’s top Republican, echoed some recent criticisms of the infrastructure bank concept, arguing that it would present a danger to taxpayers.
“Debt-funded infrastructure spending is not, and never will be, the most effective way to deal with short-term economic difficulty,” Shelby said. An NIB would be a new government-sponsored enterprise structure that would place the financial risk on the public but generate profits for the private sector, Shelby argued. He also asked “why federal resources and guarantees are needed” to pay for projects.
“We need to develop a comprehensive long-term approach” to maintaining and building roads and other brick-and-mortar assets, Shelby said. He cautioned that, in doing so, lawmakers should “not construct another Fannie or Freddie under the guise of infrastructure.”
Kienitz assured Shelby that a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac-like GSE is “not in terribly high favor with a lot of folks,” and Krueger said the national infrastructure bank would be “very different from the GSEs.” The bank would be part of the budget and would not be a profit-seeking institution, Krueger noted.