House Budget Panel Looks at Need for Federal Investment in Infrastructure

Any Congressional hearing focusing on “America’s Infrastructure” is bound to be wide ranging. This week’s House Committee on the Budget hearing on the subject was no exception.

The panel heard from the following witnesses:

  • Carol Haddock, on behalf of the American Society of Civil Engineers (written testimony here)
  • Christopher Coes of Smart Growth America (written testimony here)
  • Adie Tomer of the Brookings Institution (written testimony here)
  • Rick Geddes of Cornell University (written testimony here)

Chairman John Yarmuth (D-KY) highlighted how critical infrastructure is for a strong American economy. He talked about the value of an interconnected national network of transportation and broadband. He emphasized the essential role of our water and energy systems. And he noted the important role of infrastructure in protecting our communities from an increasingly unpredictable natural environment.

Unfortunately, Yarmuth noted, our American infrastructure has well-known challenges. From its age and physical condition, to its lack of technological upgrades, to its sheer omission in some parts of the country, the chairman reinforced the point that our infrastructure today is a lag on the nation’s “long-run economic prospects.” This is not a new narrative for infrastructure in the United States today and, indeed, was prominent in recent calls from both sides of the political aisle for trillions of additional federal investment.

Where the Members’ comments and ideas fell short, however, was in meeting the hearing’s objectives of determining the precise need for federal investment and what the federal role is or should be. Because, in reality, each infrastructure sector involves fundamentally different design frameworks and market attributes. And they are owned, regulated, governed and operated by different public and private entities. The federal role is higher in sectors like transportation and water than it is in energy and broadband.

The witnesses called for greater investment, too. On behalf of ASCE, Carol Haddock (who is the public works director for the City of Houston, Texas) emphasized the imperative of fixing the highway trust fund. Cornell University’s Richard Geddes suggested lifting the federal cap on private activity bonds to unlock money currently sitting on the sidelines. Adie Tomer from Brookings noted that we “clearly need to spend more” and there are obvious needs for infrastructure capacity expansions, significant upgrades, and digital modernization.

The discussion at the hearing actually expanded the characterization of infrastructure beyond its traditional brick-and-mortar notions and emphasized the tight relationship between infrastructure and land use. Christopher Coes of Smart Growth America articulated the need for federal investment in brownfield remediation to put vacant and underused land back into productive use. Geddes highlighted ways the federal government could leverage its investments through mechanisms to capture the increase value in land that occurs when infrastructure projects are built. Tomer called for a new “Department of the Built Environment” that would combine the related infrastructure roles of the DOT, EPA, HUD, and Commerce departments. (Ed. Note: This sounds somewhat similar to President Nixon’s 1971 proposal for a Department of Community Development that would have combined many of those roles.)

Importantly, a key theme of the hearing emphasized by each witness was that money is not enough. Haddock called on Congress to require all projects that receive more than $5 million in federal funds to use life-cycle cost analysis to ensure the long term costs of maintaining infrastructure is taken into account. Geddes asked the federal government to give more attention to partnerships that leverage private sector know-how. Tomer drove the point home by emphasizing that spending is not the federal infrastructure outcome we want to achieve. Spending, he noted, is an output, not an outcome.

The main point is that to keep infrastructure from spasming back and forth in our national discourse, we need a new narrative. Congress needs to be specific about its definition for infrastructure, the federal role, and its vision for what it wants to achieve. The outcome, then, is based on a set of shared values and goals.

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