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A National Infrastructure Bank Can Provide Important Benefits If Mission and Scope Are Defined Narrowly

Testimony Before U.S. House Committee

Samuel Staley
May 13, 2010

Prepared for presentation to:
Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures
U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means
1100 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C.

Chairman Neal, Ranking Member Tiberi, members of the Subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to discuss the potential benefits and limits of a national infrastructure bank (NIB) in meeting U.S. infrastructure needs. I am Sam Staley, Robert W. Galvin Fellow and Director of Urban and Land Use Policy for Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank that advances the practical application of free market principles to improve the quality of life for all Americans.

We are at a crossroads on how to fund long-term investments in the nation's roads, bridges, ports, airports, water, sewer, and other infrastructure. Our growing metropolitan areas need significant investments in major physical infrastructure, whether a toll tunnel in Atlanta, freight rail modernization in Chicago, or the expansion of port capacity in Los Angeles. Many of our older metropolitan areas need to upgrade or retrofit existing infrastructure at levels that require hundreds of millions of dollars. An infrastructure bank, if properly defined and implemented, can provide a meaningful role in meeting these needs.

However, a NIB may also side track important national priorities and undermine economic competitiveness if its mission and programs are not properly defined and implemented. My testimony will focus on the characteristics and criteria necessary for ensuring an infrastructure bank works effectively and avoids the inefficiencies inherent in a politicized funding environment.

My testimony today will focus largely on the implications of a NIB on transportation infrastructure, but I think these comments are equally applicable to other forms of infrastructure including water, sewer, stormwater management and other utilities.

  1. What is an Infrastructure Bank?

In an ideal world, the private sector would be able to identify water, sewer, utility, roads, bridges, and other physical infrastructure projects necessary to meet key community need, tap private capital markets to finance them, and fund them through market-based user fees. In practice, this approach has been outside the U.S. framework for funding and financing core infrastructure although the extensive use of public-private partnerships in other countries (e.g., China, Australia, France, and elsewhere) have brought many countries closer to a market-driven environment. Instead, we have relied on a system of government grants and ad hoc funding measures to bridge an increasingly large infrastructure funding gap. In the absence of effective markets for large, capital intensive projects, infrastructure banks have stepped in an attempt to fill some of this gap. The question now before the U.S. Congress is whether the nation needs to create a national infrastructure bank to take us a step closer to meeting our core public service needs and adopt new ways of thinking about and financing these projects.

Serious proposals for some form of a national infrastructure bank emerged midway through the last decade as the gap between infrastructure needs and revenues became increasingly obvious. Current audits of the nation's roadways alone suggest our annual spending falls about $27 billion short of funding levels needed to simply keep our existing transportation network in a state of good repair.

While the nation's current transportation funding system has a source of revenue-the federal gas tax-for the short-term, a porous political process and rigid distribution formulas too often misallocate funding away from key projects. (The last transportation bill, for example, included thousands of discretionary earmarks.) Government budgeting hampers strategic decisionmaking since funding for long-term projects is contingent on annual revenue distributions. Thus, a long-term capacity need may not be met because in any given year annual revenues might not be sufficient to finance the project. This is a problem endemic at the state level as well as the national level, as the public concern over lagging reauthorization of federal transportation funding showed at the end of 2009.

A national infrastructure bank could provide an objective and transparent framework for filling the large gaps in the nation's physical infrastructure as long as its mission is defined narrowly and decisions on infrastructure investments are politically independent and transparent.  In theory, a NIB would allow infrastructure decisions to be made in an environment more closely resembling a private sector bank since it is more suitable to matching investments with long-term rates of return and other benefits. The key is to provide a rigorous framework for attempts to allocate increasingly scarce federal funds to their highest, best, and most productive use based on objective assessments of potential public benefits against costs.

If an infrastructure bank, however, is used to simply consolidate existing grant programs, these benefits are not likely to materialize. By their nature, loans to public and private customers are based on expectations of paying the bank back. They include assessments of uncertainty and risk that balance the costs of providing capital to fund long-term investments. In principle, these revenues should become part of a "revolving" fund, in which revenues from previous loans are used to underwrite future investments.

At least in principle, physical infrastructure projects lend themselves to this type of financing because they provide long-term benefits, assets can be depreciated over long-periods of time, and their values remain relatively stable. The key is to ensure that a sustainable and stable revenue stream is tied to the project to finance the loan. In many countries, these revenues are tied to user fees (e.g., tolls, water usage fees, wastewater volume, etc.) or explicit commitments of future tax revenue to paying off the bonds used to pay for the facilities. On the local level, user fees are common for water and sewer systems in the U.S. Tolls on the other hand, are a very small source of funds for U.S. roads despite their widespread use in nations ranging from China to France. Nevertheless, their potential to become a significant source of funds in U.S. urban areas is substantial.

Of course, debt is not a substitute for revenue; it merely changes the timing of revenue payments allowing large amounts borrowed up front to finance a bridge, road, or sewer plant to be spread out over the economic life of the facility. In the case of highways, tunnels, and bridges, the typical economic "life" of a project or asset typically extends to 50 years or more.  Water, sewer and other public-health infrastructure may have shorter life spans depending on advances in technology and changing health (and environmental) standards.

Grants, in contrast, work on fundamentally different principles. A grant reflects a one-time payment without an expectation of repayment. Grants often carry more risk to the taxpayer and government because once the funds are dispersed they are difficult to reclaim if the project fails. Grants, for example, do not have revenue streams tied to the project since the nature of the grant is to provide free and clear funding without future financial obligations. While an infrastructure bank might have responsibilities for making grants of some types, grants are not loans and should not be confused with the fundamental nature and character of a bank which is to incur debt and loan funds to underwrite the construction and sometimes maintenance of infrastructure facilities.

Thus, a national infrastructure bank should be thought of primarily as a lender of public funds, not a grant maker. To the extent that a national infrastructure bank might include grant making responsibilities, explicit rules and regulations should be adopted that recognize the fundamental differences between the financing instruments, the criteria needed to evaluate proposals, and evaluating the projects receiving the funds. And whenever possible, grants should be tied to loans to provide a greater level of accountability for the projects.

Fundamentally, however, a NIB should be constituted to issue debt, not grants, and use the proceeds from these loans to underwrite capital projects.

  1. Potential Benefits of an Infrastructure Bank

A well structured infrastructure bank could have several potential advantages over the current system if structured properly and its scope sufficiently narrow to avoid political abuse and mismanagement. Potential benefits include;

  1. Potential Limits and pitfalls

Theory, however, doesn't always square with reality.

First, an infrastructure bank is not a substitute for other forms of public funding. On the contrary, the debt issued by the bank is a liability for the agency, not an asset. At best, an infrastructure bank can supplement federal funding for infrastructure by leveraging projects through borrowing, but loans or government guaranteed bonds do not supplant federal funding. The potential benefit is in realigning financing costs with more realistic timetables for paying off the loans (or bonds). Debt must be paid back, either through future tax revenues or through user fees, so the funds are not "free" in an administrative or economic sense.

Second, public debt is also not issued in a vacuum. It must compete for private dollars in a global market place. If a NIB lends $1 billion for a new road, those funds are diverted from the private sector, either from the general public or private investment funds. Issuing too much debt, which often occurs at lower interest rates because of the implicit government guarantee, or funding projects with few benefits, will crowd out private investment in other parts of the economy that may be more productive. Debt is not a free fiscal lunch.

Third, a poorly structured infrastructure bank runs the risk of political manipulation, much like what was experienced with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac when best business practices for mortgage lending were subverted by political goals and objectives. For those projects that can be funded through user fees, this risk of political manipulation is relatively small because the criteria are straightforward: users value the project at sufficiently high levels they will pay for the entire project. The loan simply bridges the gap between the funds needed to construct the facility and the time the facility generates revenues to pay for the cost. For projects not fully funded by user fees, the risk is higher because achieving social goals becomes an important justification for public financing of a project.

Thus, absent self-funding user fee projects, infrastructure banks are susceptible to making investment decisions that are highly distorted by political interference. This is particularly true if its mission is interpreted broadly, or the criteria for providing the loans or grants are loose, poorly defined, or hard to measure. Loans must be made using objective criteria directly linked to the benefit expected. Investments in roads, for example, should have meaningful impacts on mobility and travel times in order to justify loans or other bank investments.

Fourth, an unanticipated outcome of a NIB might be to weaken the authority of state and local governments in setting policy and investment priorities. This might be more likely if a NIB is established without a clear national or federal project mandate incorporated into its mission and purpose. Currently, states and local governments are given deference in funding since they are often in the best position to evaluate the potential benefits of infrastructure investments. A NIB that has wide discretionary authority over funding may well undermine this implicit recognition of the efficiencies provided by local knowledge of needs and requirements.

While a national infrastructure bank has several potential benefits, policymakers run the risk of asking the bank to do "too much" or create a management organization that is simply incapable of efficiently and objectively evaluating the viability of projects or their public benefits. Infrastructure banks must have a clearly defined role and its activities must be directly tied to specific activities and projects that have measurable outcomes.

  1. Characteristics of a High-Performing Infrastructure Bank

If a national infrastructure bank were established by Congress, what would its fundamental characteristics look like? 

Many of these criteria are summarized in the table below .

Unfortunately, the current infrastructure bank proposals before the Congress fall short on many of these criteria. The most detailed proposal, H.R. 2521, the "National Infrastructure Development Bank Act of 2009," envisions a complex and diffused management structure that includes 9 executive officers appointed, fired, and compensated by a five member Board appointed by the President of the United States (with the advice and consent of the Senate). The Board also appoints two standing committees that include four additional members each to a Risk Management and separate Audit Committee. The criteria for qualifying loans are extremely porous, including criteria that are more appropriately classified as social goals. Presumably projects that meet these social goals, which include workforce training, reducing poverty, job creation, and Smart Growth, would qualify for funding even if they do not provide adequate or efficient physical infrastructure. Indeed, these goals have little application to providing efficient or productive infrastructure, reflecting political considerations and policy tradeoffs.

Criteria for Determining Eligibility of Projects for Funding From a National Infrastructure Bank

Should the Project Be Funded?

Selected Key Criteria



The project is national in scope



The project crosses state boundaries


The project is international in scope or impact


The project provides significant national or multi-state public benefits


User fees can fund the project


Private financing is unavailable


Private equity and funding sources have been tapped


The project is too large to be funded by state or regional governments


Federal funding provides "bridge" financing


Federal assistance pre-empts state or local funding


The project fills an investment gap


Sustainable revenue sources are unavailable


Project funds operations or ongoing maintenance


State and local funding sources have been exhausted



Loan is tied to specific performance criteria (unless reimbursed by user fees)



The White House's proposal to create a National Infrastructure Innovation and Finance Fund (I-Fund) is less well developed, so specific comments on its operation, mission, and potential programs are speculative at best. For example, it's unclear how nesting the I-Fund in the US DOT will create the independence necessary to follow through on a rigorous and objective analytical process, or what criteria will be used to determine the merits of varying infrastructure projects. The primary objective of the I-Fund appears to be consolidating federal programs that fund various forms of infrastructure (breaking down "silos"). While consolidation may have value, a national infrastructure bank would need to have clear criteria for assessing risk and the potential rate of return for investments in different projects. In fact, one possible outcome of consolidating federal funding programs might be less accountability, as a rigorous evaluation of investments in different infrastructure projects becomes difficult to assess without clear objectives or performance criteria.

  1. Conclusions

On the surface, the creation of a national infrastructure bank is an attractive option for the federal government. The possibility of consolidating programs, putting government loan programs on a more objective basis for evaluating performance, and streamlining the approval process for key infrastructure facilities holds promise.

These potential benefits must be balanced with a clear understanding of the limits of infrastructure banks and the forces that could lead to even more inefficiency and political manipulation. Infrastructure banks work best when they have a clear, focused mission, their operations focus on loans, and transparent performance criteria allow their operations to be monitored, evaluated, and held accountable.

Thank you for your attention and this opportunity to address the Subcommittee on this important national issue.

Samuel Staley is Research Fellow

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