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Has Trump Deep-Sixed His Own Infrastructure Agenda?

Image by Henry Teitelbaum

A once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore America’s failing infrastructure is being squandered by a dysfunctional White House.

By Henry Teitelbaum, Editor, P3 Planet

It would be difficult to overstate just how wide the chasm running through the American political landscape has become since Donald Trump entered the White House. It is evident on the streets, at town halls, and in every proposal that comes before Congress. Even so, there is a lot of common ground when it comes to appreciating the need to invest in restoring the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

America has some of the oldest, most inadequate and poorly maintained public roads, bridges, transit systems, waterways and sewage infrastructure in the developed world. Its condition is seriously affecting everyone’s quality of life, whether through clogged roads, flight delays or flooded homes. In the face of challenges ranging from the threat of bridges collapsing to an entire city’s water supply becoming tainted, there should be no scope for partisan disagreement on the need to act quickly.

Failing Infrastructure’s Real Cost

In the just-released 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a particularly grave assessment of the state of these critical public assets. The nation received another cumulative GPA of D+, unchanged from the previous survey in 2013 and consistent with “D” grades going back to 1998. That’s an exceptionally poor performance for a country with the kind of wealth America has, particularly given the number of high-profile infrastructure-related emergencies that have hit since the last survey. Lead tainted drinking water in Flint, Michigan in 2014 and this year’s evacuation of 200,000 people living downstream from the Oroville Dam in California are two incidents that made headlines, but there are many others.

One might have hoped that such crises would focus more minds on the condition of the nation’s dams and drinking water infrastructure. Sadly, according to the report, this has yet to happen. Both got “D” grades, which is one level above failing, just like last time. Meanwhile, the condition of America’s neglected transit systems, parks and solid waste infrastructure meanwhile, has actually worsened, according to the ASCE. In 2013, for example, it found that only 51% of people in America are able to use public transit to do their grocery shopping. This means more cars on the road, more unnecessary traffic congestion, more pollution, and more cost to those who can least afford it.

The reason, according to the ASCE, is that America is paying only about half of its infrastructure bill, and this is creating a funding gap of the kind that costs businesses and the economy hugely in terms of lost sales and productivity. This gap is estimated to total somewhere around $1.44 trillion between 2016 and 2025, or just under half of the nation’s $3.32 trillion infrastructure funding needs for the period. The cost to the US GDP, according to the report, will grow to an estimated $3.9 trillion by 2025 should infrastructure needs continue to be ignored.

The Case for Investing

Aside from the economic costs of not fixing America’s broken infrastructure, there are excellent reasons for making new investments in it today. Borrowing now, while interest rates are still low, reduces the cost of financing, which improves the financial feasibility of long-term projects. This makes them more attractive to the types of investors that are structurally geared toward this type of investment.

Increasingly, for example, pension funds see infrastructure as a good way to invest safely over the long term. When they are operational, public assets such as toll roads generate secure long-term, even inflation-indexed cash flows that are easy for pension funds to match to their liabilities. At a time when large pension funds in the US are lamenting the lack of attractive long-term investments at home due to low yields on government bonds, infrastructure could provide just the kinds of returns they seek to meet the needs of a growing population of retirees.

Infrastructure investment also has a long-standing history of generating high-quality jobs, both directly in the construction industry and in a range of services to local economies. Building a better physical infrastructure that brings benefits for future generations can also encourage stronger communities. It does this by helping to restore a sense of common purpose to a nation where faith in government has been eroded and where voters worry about their future and their children’s future.

Does Washington Know About This?

So why is it taking so long for Washington to get behind a big infrastructure plan? For the answer, look no further than President Donald Trump’s failing leadership and divisive style of governing.

It’s not just that the US President has failed to set, lead or seriously promote his infrastructure agenda so much as his inability to engage seriously with any issue long enough to see it through. Infrastructure, as much as any legislative program, requires discipline, bipartisanship and patience – none of which has been in evidence from the Oval Office.

“…the Trump Administration quietly moved to Plan B, and practically nobody noticed.”

Over the past six months, we’ve instead witnessed a distracted and belligerent President failing to push through any of his campaign’s legislative agenda, whether it’s tax reform or his repeated efforts to repeal and/or replace Obamacare. The way with which Trump moves from failure to failure while blaming everyone else is as astonishing as it is consequential. Which brings us to Trump’s infrastructure agenda.

During the campaign, Trump promised to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next 10 years. The original proposal, the “Trump Private Sector Financing Plan,” relied on passage of a huge, heavily flawed and ultimately un-passable overhaul of the entire US tax system. This would have included reducing taxes on the repatriation of US corporate overseas profits from 35% to as low as 10%, if companies then invested those profits into infrastructure redevelopment. Some $2.5 trillion of deferred taxes overseas earnings could then be eligible for investment in rebuilding America’s roads, airports and water systems, and other essential assets.

But because the Trump administration doesn’t have a budget bill yet, even with Republicans dominating both houses of Congress, none of these overseas profits are available for investment. So when “Infrastructure Week” came around a few months ago, the Trump Administration quietly moved to Plan B, and practically nobody noticed.

Stealing A Page From Hillary

The proposal that was finally unveiled bears very little in common with his original infrastructure proposal other than the $1 trillion aspirational figure over 10 years. Instead of relying on tax revenue and credit giveaways to incentivize private sector equity investment, though, the plan appears to rely almost entirely on Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) to bring private financing and expertise to the task.

Even to the untrained eye, this looks an awful lot like the infrastructure plan that Republicans ridiculed and then blocked for much of President Obama’s eight years in office. It’s also very much like the plan put forward by Hillary Clinton during the campaign, which envisioned mobilizing private capital for investment in public infrastructure through the PPP model.

PPP, or as it’s called in the US and Canada, P3, is a model for procuring and managing long-term infrastructure that has been used successfully around the world in both developed and developing countries. It requires private consortia, typically construction firms and their financial backers competitively bid for a contract to design, finance, build, operate and maintain a public asset. The private companies also shoulder the risks around project delivery and face stiff financial penalties for failing to perform contracted duties. In this and other ways,P3 is distinct from privatization because the asset, whether a road, an airport or a school district, remains publicly owned.

People debate the merits of this model as opposed to traditional public sector borrowing and spending. But in an age when governments, including the US, are close to broke, it has broad appeal. In Canada it has become something of the default procurement option for the government because it delivers reasonable value for money and better mobilizes the skills, discipline, financial capacities and risk management capabilities of the private sector.

Dysfunctionality As Policy

So what does the Trump administration’s failure to push through a corporate tax reform bill linked to his original infrastructure agenda, or for that matter even a budget, mean for America over the next three and a half years?

We will have to see after the summer recess. But it doesn’t take a tarot card reader to tell you that the signs are not good. A federal government led by an incompetent administration that stumbles from crisis to crisis of its own making is unlikely to follow through on any kind of infrastructure agenda. That would be a huge lost opportunity for America because an infrastructure-led government agenda could go a long way towards putting investments to work in restoring the country’s competitiveness while delivering the jobs that Mr. Trump boasts about creating.

With or without support from the current administration, P3 projects are destined to become a permanent part of the infrastructure investment landscape in the US because the alternatives are expensive and sometimes deliver poor value for the public funds that are invested. In Canada, they account for some 36% of all infrastructure investment while in the US it’s 1%.

The most likely scenario for the next few years will be for many of the 33 states that have PPP-enabling legislation in place to formulate their own infrastructure agenda, perhaps in cooperation with each other. This could go some ways towards making sure these next few years are not wasted while waiting for Trump’s dysfunctional government in Washington to do its job.

This blog post has also appeared in The Market Mogul.

Nearing A Watershed for Water Infrastructure?

By Henry Teitelbaum, Editor, P3 Planet

When public water infrastructure makes it into the presidential campaign debate, is it a sign that public discourse is at a tipping point?

Considering the scale of the looming national  water crisis, let’s hope it is. Public debate has been long overdue over how best to cover the giant backlog of under-investment in safeguarding sustainable drinking water supplies. We’re now at a point where doing something about it is as important as finding new sources of fresh water to supply the parched Southwest corner of the US.

Traditional Delivery

In most countries, the US included, the idea used to be that water is too precious a public resource to allow the private sector to have any control over managing its delivery, or even the operation and maintenance of its physical infrastructure.

But the  Flint, Michigan lead poisoning scandal changed all of that. For one thing,  the myth that dedicated public sector servants somehow can ensure better safety standards than if water supplies were privately run has been exposed. Not only did the government fail in its mission to protect and serve the people, it has claimed the right to hide from its responsibilities. 

Michigan’s Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card

Michigan’s ‘sovereign immunity’ doctrine is a piece of self-serving state legislation that now presents a significant legal obstacle to anyone seeking compensation, or even medical treatment for the long-term health damage caused by lead in the water supply. Under the law, Michigan and other states must grant permission to anyone making a legal claim against it.

In other words, officials elected by many of the same people who have been poisoned by their subsequent  negligence are in a position to deny legal responsibility for actions they take in an official capacity. So victims can give up on the idea that the government is better motivated than the private sector to pay for heath care,  worker’s compensation or damages, when things go badly wrong.

Blame it on the Budget

The lack of adequate public financial resources to pay for water infrastructure maintenance cuts to the heart of the issue, not just in bankrupt states like Michigan, but  across the country and, indeed, around the world.

It goes a long way towards explaining why water regularly ranks at the bottom of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card on the nation’s infrastructure. It’s current grade is a D-minus, placing it one notch above failing.

Private Money to the Rescue?

The free market approach, as often advocated by business-minded politicians, is that privatizing these assets will bring better cost control and more efficient service. This is predicated on the shaky assumption that any company that gets the contract will treat public health as a solemn trust, even as it strives to provide fat returns to its shareholders.

If you think calling in the private sector is always the best alternative model for managing water and other essential public resources, consider the largely preventable water crisis that recently brought the western hemisphere’s largest mega-city Sao Paulo, Brazil to the brink of disaster.

Sao Paulo’s Near Miss

SABESP is a mixed capital company that is both stock-exchange listed and publicly owned.  It has a 30-year concession for water and waste management in Sao Paulo, but has utterly failed to  manage the city’s available water supply in a country often referred to as the Saudi Arabia of fresh water. By neglecting to make critical investments in water infrastructure that might have prevented a severe water shortage in 2014,  it bears direct responsibility for bringing the city to the verge of catastrophe.

An equally damning  criticism  is that the profit-oriented structure of the company is fundamentally at odds with its ethical and public health duty to deliver an essential public service. The company’s long history of stock splits and  increasing dividends to stockholders does little to discourage this view.

Short-changing  Public Health

While the water crisis there has receded for the moment,  critics say SABESP’s failure to invest in critical water infrastructure gave short-shrift to the health of 30 million citizens of Sao Paulo.

Beyond the near criminal neglect of infrastructure are systemic legal issues, such as Brazil’s constitutional requirement for shared management of water resources by Federal, state and municipal authorities. A lack of communication or coordination among these levels of government resulted in watersheds being managed based on political rather than more logical geographical criteria.

Water Delivery in The Age of Shortages

So what is the right structure for water infrastructure delivery?

There is of course no single blueprint that applies to all situations. But considering how climate change is likely to bring a lot more spot shortages of water going forward, it’s fair to expect that water  infrastructure issues are going to come up again and again.

Given the gravity of water issues around the world a look at how Israel has overcome chronic water shortages by adopting holistic delivery and  management practices coupled with advanced desalination technology provides some scope for optimism.

Israel, like many countries, faces challenges related  to  a growing population, a thirsty agricultural sector and over-exploitation of natural water resources. It also exists  in a particularly hostile, crowded and arid region of the world.

As water shortages became critical earlier this century,  the Israeli government established an inter-ministerial agency in 2007 with the goal of coordinating policy at all levels and implementing the most comprehensive water management program ever undertaken.

Holistic Approach Needed

The program included a big push on water conservation, but also an ambitious wastewater recycling plan to ensure adequate water was available for agriculture use. For human consumption, the country planned. and has now mostly completed building five giant desalination plants using the latest reverse osmosis technology.

These convert sea water into potable water by forcing it through a membrane that filters out the salt and other impurities. The plants were delivered using the public private partnership (PPP) model, which enabled the government to tap the private sector know-how and financing to bring innovative approaches to reducing energy consumption and boosting efficiency.

In return, the company, IDE Technologies, got a concession to operate the plants for 25 years, after which time the assets will be transferred to state ownership. The state, for its part, retains final ownership of the assets, but buys the desalinated water from the company for 58 cents a cubic meter. That’s actually cheap by Middle Eastern standards. It then reinvests the money it collects from taxes into new water infrastructure, which is being developed by the national water company, Merokot.

Making Friends In the Middle East

The country now has a water surplus, which in a hostile neighborhood such as the Middle East, could go a long way towards building lasting friendships.

The risks are weighted toward further severe water crises, whether due to over-exploitation of existing natural supplies, or the effects of climate change. So at the very least, Israel’s successful use of PPP to manage its vital water requirements represents one highly effective model for water delivery in an increasingly thirsty world.

This article has also appeared on Medium and Business Daily