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The Big Fix

How to Pay for America's Infrastructure

How to Pay for America's Infrastructure
Reuters/Anthony Bolante

America's transportation infrastructure is in desperate need of an update, and most politicians would agree that more funding should be dedicated the nation’s highways and mass transit systems. Yet there is little consensus about where to find those new funds and Democrats and Republicans disagree stridently over whether Washington should increase its role.

One potentially fertile place for compromise may be in the form of state infrastructure banks, which have gained support from both the left and right in recent months. These public agencies, provided some government funds, would be designed to encourage significant private investment. And they would do so with little interference from the national government.

"I-banks" could lend states, municipalities, and perhaps even private sector agencies a significant portion of project funds that would later be paid back through user fees, public-private partnerships, or dedicated taxes.

The idea is to get more transportation projects under construction without significantly expanding the national deficit. And the idea is not particularly new: Infrastructure banks have been on the radar since 1995, when state banks were initially authorized to receive federal funds. Now, more than thirty states have them in operation.

But most operate on a small scale, and are unprepared to fund large-scale projects. They are also strongly tilted toward highway infrastructure, not multimodal needs.

Yet recent proposals have been much more ambitious. President Obama has made the case strongly throughout his first term that a national bank run by the U.S. Department of Transportation would be most effective, since it would be staffed by experts and backed by the federal government. A proposal announced by the White House earlier this year would put $10 billion in the coffers of such an agency.

Democrats in the Congress introduced a bill to fund such an organization in October, but John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has said that he would refuse to endorse such a concept. Mica suggests that states are up to the task and that Washington’s involvement would get in the way. Some Democrats have articulated a compromise. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), for instance, introduced a bill that would pass one billion dollars to each state to set up their own infrastructure banks.

A review of the current work of state infrastructure banks, though, raises the question of whether state governments are ready to significantly expand their infrastructure banks.

Consider the experience of five state infrastructure banks in Florida, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Total investments have ranged from $60 million in Oregon to $1.1 billion in Florida, which are about a decade old on average. In the case of Pennsylvania, which has had a bank since 1998 and loaned a total of $132 million in 13 years, a $1 billion allocation from Washington such as has been suggested by Senator Wyden would represent a rapid eight-fold increase in spending.

The limited funding from state infrastructure banks thus far results from a confluence of supply and demand. One example - Pennsylvania’s bank currently receives up to $30 million annually from the state budget, according to the agency. Hugh McGowan, the manager of the state bank, says that "it is a very popular program" but that annual applications had never reached $30 million.

In most states studied, the vast majority of infrastructure bank funds has gone to roads projects, indicating that the commitment of the federal government to multi-modality - 20 percent of federal surface transportation spending generally goes to public transit - has not been followed through in the states. Texas has loaned virtually none of its $477 million total to transit, while Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have devoted just two to four percent of their funding to bus and rail improvement projects. Only Florida stands out, with 11 percent of its loans going to transit, thanks to major investments in projects like the SunRail commuter line.

McGowan, of the Pennsylvania bank, said that "there are no maximums or minimums" for the types of projects approved, one problem might be that few transit agencies apply for aid. In Ohio, Ohio Department of Transportation Press Secretary Steve Faulkner agreed. "Any type of transportation project is eligible for state infrastructure bank funding" he says. "So, the number of transit loans is a direct result of the corresponding number of transit applications received."

The state infrastructure banks are making sound financial choices when it comes to the projects they sponsor. Kane, of Florida, told me that the state’s program had never "experienced any default on repayments." Ohio’s Faulkner said "all loans - with the exception of two - were repaid." In both cases, the defaulter was a private developer.

Though this sample of infrastructure banks does not profess to represent the sum of experience on the subject, the five considered are large states with a mix of urban, suburban, and rural environments, and a mix of Democratic and Republican constituents. Thus their involvement with infrastructure banks would likely to be followed in other states if Washington were to choose to invest more in them. Yet the mixed outcomes - responsible management but a general focus on small roads projects in most states - suggests that increased funding for state infrastructure banks will hardly provide a panacea for resolving national infrastructure woes.

Keywords: Infrastructure

Yonah Freemark is the creator of The Transport Politic and has contributed on urban issues to the New York Times, CNN, Next City, and other outlets, including The Atlantic Cities. He is a project manager at Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago. All posts »

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