If only the 53-page “Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America” – or the Trump Infrastructure Plan – could be read backwards, its disappearance from the public stage would not have been so immediate. Unfortunately, much of the detailed and largely positive initiatives that comprise eighty percent of the document is lost after the first nine pages once it becomes clear that no new net federal funding for infrastructure is being proposed.
Perhaps, even more surprising for a Republican administration, it also proposes a flurry of new programs that would move decision-making on individual projects from statehouses to Washington.
In its first pages, the Plan purports to provide $200 billion of federal support that will produce $1.5 trillion of infrastructure spending. Unfortunately, this only perpetuates the prevailing false political narrative in America that we can meet our country’s challenges without paying for them. The Plan’s federal funding is not incrementally additive but rather largely reprogrammed existing funding. And to add insult to injury, the Administration’s subsequently released FY 2019 budget proposal takes out the knife for many existing federal infrastructure programs.
In order to achieve its $1.5 trillion goal, the Plan assumes that this modest funding will leverage state, local and private investment more than sevenfold. In practical terms, this would increase the burden on state and local government to raise taxes and other revenues while the federal government cuts taxes by $1.5 trillion or more. The Plan seems to ignore that state and local governments already fund 75% of our nation’s infrastructure and only limited portions of our public infrastructure can be feasibly supported by tolls and user fees.
The Plan would reverse the country’s historical infrastructure bargain: significant federal funds offered to states to carry out national goals locally. Instead, the Trump Plan moves much of individual project selection and approvals back to Washington with very little federal funding in return. The plan mistakenly assumes that states will compete for 20% project grant funding from Washington in lieu of historical 80% category grant funding.
Not surprisingly then, the prevailing Washington wisdom seems correct and the Trump proposal is DOA: nothing to induce Democrats to spend time at the table, and Republicans largely don’t care. All of this in the context of yet another “infrastructure week” upstaged by tragic events and the prospect of a global trade war.
But the larger document deserves to be read in its entirety. Despite the lack of funding, the Plan is a comprehensive and specific approach exceeding in thoughtfulness many of the think tank infrastructure tomes over the last several years. Despite the absence of adequate federal funding levels, it advances a vision — greater involvement of the private sector with public infrastructure—and then details how the federal government will pursue this new infrastructure paradigm with its vast authorities.
Why is this important? Because the traditional “government monopoly” model for delivering and operating infrastructure has, in part, led to the predicament we are in. Said differently, the current underfunding problem isn’t just the need for increased funding; the problem is also very much how current funding is deployed.
Governments at all levels need to advance solutions that achieve greater design, procurement and operating efficiencies with the revenues they already have. For example, recent experience across the country with design-build procurement techniques have reduced the cost of infrastructure projects, especially the big and complex ones, by 10% to 20%.
The Trump Plan’s numerous proposals to involve the private sector are intended to address this shortfall in our country’s current model. And, before one too quickly dismisses these ideas as “Trumpian,” recall that the Obama Administration spent much of its eight years promoting increased use of Public-Private Partnerships (P3). The private sector elements of the Trump Plan in many respects are the logical next steps of Obama-era advocacy of a similar model.
An important breakthrough of the Trump proposal is the recognition that our municipal finance model is the main engine of U.S. infrastructure investment and that it should not be replaced by the P3 model despite some of the latter’s advantages. There is an essential recognition that the way forward is to craft federal policies that make the two models more compatible, allowing state and local governments to better achieve the best of both approaches.
The expansion of private activity bonds and the loosening of their availability to the private sector is strong evidence of this understanding of U.S. infrastructure financing dynamics. This element of the Plan will more readily facilitate the advantages of lower cost tax-exempt financing together with the procurement and management efficiencies that the private model can deliver -- not forcing governors and mayors to make a choice between one model or the other.
Beyond the private activity bond provisions, the Plan proposes that the federal government lead by example, turning to the private sector for infrastructure cost efficiencies and value enhancement of its own assets. Perhaps, most notably, is a listing of potential federal properties for divestiture, including Reagan National and Dulles Airports, and the TVA and Bonneville Power transmission assets. (page 19).
Other proposals include, creating an Interior Maintenance Fund so that expanded energy development (page 17) will directly benefit the Department of Interior’s enormous backlog of public lands infrastructure needs. States would be given the authority to commercialize interstate rest areas (page 21) and toll interstate highways. The Department of Veterans Affairs would be permitted to retain the proceeds from the sales of its properties and create a pilot program for building private facilities on VA land (page 32).
You get the theme: the plan is a specific blueprint for how the federal government can advance involvement of the private sector in the provision of public infrastructure—federal, state and local—employing its resources and levers to advance this policy goal in concert with the municipal market’s existing low-cost financing tools.
There are proposals that one may not agree with and others that may not yet be fully baked. Infrastructure policy is a topic best addressed by getting into the weeds. This document does just that. Importantly, it provides a long overdue detailed review of other topics such as design, public-bidding procedures, and environmental regulatory review and permitting.
The Trump Infrastructure Plan is worthy of a full debate. Its policy framework and comprehensive cataloging of existing federal program and regulatory obstacles are an important contribution to the discussion. If this or a future Congress is willing to provide adequate and sustainable federal funding, the Trump Plan could ultimately form the basis of a meaningful long term solution to our nation’s infrastructure challenges.
Kent Hiteshew was a municipal investment banker with JP Morgan and U.S. Treasury official who served as a member of the Obama Administration’s Infrastructure Task Force. He is currently a Senior Fellow with the Marron Institute of Urban Management at NYU.
Chris Hamel recently retired as head of RBC Capital Markets’ municipal banking group and served as Chair of the SIFMA Infrastructure Policy Committee.