The Progressive Fix

Financing Future Growth: How Do We Pay For New Projects?

A National Infrastructure Bank is an idea whose time has come. The politics are tricky, but there is clear recognition from leading public and private sector thinkers that we need to make big investments in infrastructure, and that we need to make those investments in a rational way.

These were the key takeaway points from Friday’s second panel on the question of “Financing Future Growth,” which was part of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Second Annual North American Strategic Leadership Infrastructure Leadership Forum in Washington, DC.

The panelists were: U.S. Representative Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT), Sponsor of National Infrastructure Development Bank Act of 2009 (H.R. 2521); Chris Bertram, Assistant Secretary for Budget and Programs and C.F.O., U.S. Department of Transportation; Leo Hindery, Jr., Investor, Managing Partner of InterMedia Partners VII; former President and CEO of AT&T Broadband; former President, Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI); and Everett Ehrlich, Economist, President of ESC Company; former Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs. PPI President Will Marshall moderated.

Rep. DeLauro set the tone for the panel by underlining the urgency for doing something big. “We need to be serious about a growth strategy,” DeLauro told a packed audience. “This is not stimulus, this is not recovery, this is whether we can grow and create jobs to compete with the economic power centers of the world. China invests nine percent of its GDP in infrastructure. India invests five percent. We invest less than two percent.”

And yet, Rep. DeLauro’s bill to create a National Infrastructure Bank and turn a chaotic ad-hoc infrastructure appropriations process into a rational national strategy has attracted only 60 co-sponsors – and not a single Republican.

“Resistance is internal to Congress,” said Hindery. “They would give up so much grant and earmark authority. Members are hesitant to see that move into an independent entity.”

Hindery argued that the key was leadership, and that the President wasn’t doing enough of it. “It has to be a stated priority,” he said. “It can’t be a proffered idea with tepid support.”

Ehrlich, who wrote a PPI Policy Memo on how an infrastructure bank should operate, was optimistic that this is an idea whose time has come. “This is a remarkable moment in infrastructure,” he said. “We are finally at a place where all the communities know the current programs are brain-dead…Local planners are wondering where the funds are going to come from, private investors are circling around the periphery of the area, looking for a way in.”

Hindery also noted that both the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable – both of whom have been largely resistant to any form of domestic spending – have come out in favor of an infrastructure bank. However, DeLauro said her Republican colleagues in Congress were not hearing this.

DeLauro highlighted that there is strong public support for making big investments in infrastructure: about 80 percent of Americans say they’d be willing to pay extra for more infrastructure.

Hindery also argued that in order for the proposal to pass, it would need to have a buy-American component, so that they unions would be on board. He also thought that making it explicitly a “jobs bill” would be effective. There was general agreement on this point.

Bertram, speaking for the administration, said that the President was serious about pushing an infrastructure bank. “I think the President is very interested in changing how we talk about these issues.”

DeLauro, who has been introducing legislation to create an infrastructure bank since 1994, was optimistic that the moment for it to pass was rapidly coming.

“We’re facing an economic crisis now, and we’re looking for ways to grow our economy,” said DeLauro. “Infrastructure is one of the pieces that makes sense for national growth. I believe it can be done. It’s not easy, but nothing is easy. And I’ll continue with this for as long as it takes.”

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