A pothole is pictured on the street of Los Angeles, California
Up Front

The national infrastructure debate: A Brookings reading list

Lilia Cherchari and David Wessel

Authors

The debate over whether and how to invest substantially more money in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure is intensifying. On the campaign trail, President Trump called for $1 trillion in new infrastructure investments. On his fifth day in office, Senate Democrats responded by unveiling their own $1 trillion plan.

While the plan from Senate Democrats relies heavily on new federal spending, President Trump has suggested his plan would be funded through tax credits or public-private partnerships—and wouldn’t add a cent to the federal deficit. Congressional Republicans have been distinctly less enthusiastic about a big infrastructure initiative.

Infrastructure spending, broadly defined, has been a focus of several Brookings publications. Here are some highlights:

Recent Research

  • How to pick high-return projects for government infrastructure and how to best pay for it
    From: If you build it: A guide to the economics of infrastructure investment
    , February 2017
    Authors: Diane Schanzenbach, Ryan Nunn, and Greg Nantz
    Drawing from the economic literature, this Hamilton Project paper provides an economic framework for evaluating infrastructure investments and alternative ways to finance them from government borrowing to public-private partnerships to user fees. The authors stress the importance of using careful cost-benefit analysis to guide local, state, and federal decision-makers towards infrastructure projects, both maintenance and new projects, likely to have the highest return in the long run.
  • Only a handful of drinking water utilities in the largest cities perform well across all six indicators of financial and economic health
    From: Investing in water: Comparing utility finances and economic concerns across U.S. cities, December 2016
    Author: Joseph Kane
    As concerns continue to ripple from incidents in Flint, Michigan, and beyond, cities remain at the forefront of many investment challenges, yet they often do not have a clear sense of where they stand relative to other markets. By examining how cities vary across three measures of utility finances—operational performance, long-term debt, and rates—and three broader economic measures affecting system performance—changes in population, changes in median household income, and the share of lower-income households—this brief attempts to paint a more complete picture of regional water.
  • The U.S. government needs to improve how federally funded knowledge creation leads to U.S. innovation and jobs
    From: Localizing the economic impact of research and development: 50 policy proposals for the Trump administration and Congress, December 2016
    Authors: Stephen Ezell (The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation) and Scott Andes
    Federal R&D plants the seeds for the technologies, products, firms, and industries of tomorrow. In fact, at least one-half of America’s economic growth can be attributed to scientific and technological innovation. This report provides 50 policy actions the Trump administration and Congress can take to bolster America’s technology transfer, commercialization, and innovation capacity, from the local to the national level.
  • Before focusing on how much to invest, federal leaders must first recognize where to invest for best results
    From: Short- and long-term strategies to renew American infrastructure, October 2016
    Authors: Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane
    This policy brief lays out a blueprint for a modern federal infrastructure strategy. It begins to detail a broad array of short-term strategies and long-term policy reforms necessary to build and maintain a strong system of infrastructure that supports sustained and broad-based economic growth.
  • Infrastructure investments will do more than fix bridges: They’ll grow the economy, boost job creation, and create opportunity
    From: Infrastructure issues and options for the next president, October 2016
    Authors: Bill Galston and Robert Puentes
    Galston and Puentes argue that it’s essential President Trump develop strategies for utilizing the federal government to: address our basic infrastructure needs and shore up existing programs, especially in support of surface transportation; enhance existing public financing mechanisms; and leverage private capital to fund lucrative infrastructure projects.
  • Old-school infrastructure accounts for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—climate-resilient infrastructure can change that
    From: financing low carbon, climate resilient infrastructure: The role of climate finances and green financial systems, September 2016
    Author: Joshua P. Melzer
    This report explores how low-carbon climate resilient infrastructure (LCR) can serve as a viable alternative to high-polluting traditional infrastructure. While net costs for financing LCR are low, such investments face significant financing challenges; this fact, along with the high need for LCR investment, means that private capital will be instrumental in funding LCR projects. On the policy side, proponents of LCR face formidable roadblocks due to continued fossil fuel subsidies and the absence of a carbon price.
  • Procurement processes that guide infrastructure investments are in an even greater state of disrepair than the infrastructure itself
    From: Opportunities for infrastructure reform: Improving America’s procurement system, September 2016
    Authors: Patrick Sabol and Robert Puentes
    Acknowledging the obvious need for infrastructure reform, this report explores the problems underlying America’s crumbling infrastructure, including the outdated procurement processes behind infrastructure projects. Using feedback from real world practitioners in government, finance, insurance, law, and construction, this report focuses on four top opportunities for smart infrastructure reform.
  • On a global scale, sustainable infrastructure is essential for achieving inclusive growth
    From: Delivering on sustainable infrastructure for better development and better climate, December 2016
    Authors: Amar Bhattacharya, Joshua P. Meltzer, Jeremy Oppenheim (SystemIQ), Zia Qureshi, and Nicholas Stern (London School of Economics)
    The three central challenges now facing the global community: to reignite global growth, deliver on the sustainable development goals (SDGs), and invest in the future of the planet through strong climate action. The authors of this report argue that investment is sustainable infrastructure is at the heart of this new global agenda.
  • We have to double investment in clean infrastructure globally to set the world on a more sustainable path
    From: Meeting the challenge of sustainable infrastructure: The role of public policy, June 2016
    Author: Zia Qureshi
    This report explores how sustainable infrastructure can be a key to tackling climate change if we Invest more and better in renewable energy, cleaner transport, efficient and resilient water systems, and smarter cities. Qureshi identifies four key roles for public policy in meeting the challenge of building sustainable infrastructure. First, sustainability must be fully integrated in national strategies and plans. It is also imperative that leaders improve the policy environment by shifting incentive structures toward green infrastructure. Next, it is crucial that we strengthen public investment management. Finally, leaders must mobilize financing through fiscal reform at both the federal and sub-national level.
  • Millions of skilled infrastructure workers will need to be replaced over the next decade
    From: Infrastructure skills: Knowledge, tools, and training to increase opportunity, May 2016
    Authors: Joseph Kane and Adie Tomer
    More than 14.5 million workers—or 11 percent of the entire U.S. workforce—are employed in infrastructure-related activities, many of which operate different physical assets and extend far beyond construction projects. These workers—who possess a wide variety of knowledge, education and training—represent a crucial segment of the workforce when it comes to expanding economic opportunity and require targeted workforce development strategies from public, private, and civic leaders across the country.
  • States could leverage revenue windfalls from fracking to build infrastructure
    From: Permanent trust funds: Funding economic change with fracking revenues, April 2016
    Authors: Devashree Saha and Mark Muro
    This report recommends that states use fracking revenues to create sovereign wealth funds that support economic transition and infrastructure. Such strategic management of fracking revenues both helps mitigate the challenges of the boom-bust cycle of unconventional oil and gas development and enhances prosperity in the long term. In designing and implementing permanent trust funds, states should consider five essential elements of good fund governance: (1) establish an effective governance framework; (2) define the fund’s revenue source, deposit, and withdrawal rules; (3) design the investment strategy; (4) seize the opportunity to invest fund earnings to economic transformation; and (5) formulate explicit disclosure and transparency standards.
  • The Internet is a huge boon to the economy, but maximizing its potential is only possible if everyone is online
    From: Broadband adoption raps and gaps in U.S. metropolitan areas, December 2015
    Authors: Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane
    Internet access means economic opportunity, but expensive private broadband remains out of reach for many lower-income individuals who stand to benefit from its adoption. In researching this gap in Internet adoption rates, Tomer and Kane argue that we must track broadband adoption rates at the subnational level since states and localities play a central role in guiding Internet policy.
  • Infrastructure drives the trading of goods that is the lifeblood of metropolitan economies
    From: Metro freight series: Global goods trade and metropolitan economies, June 2015
    Authors: Adie Tomer, Joseph Kane, and Robert Puentes
    The Metro Freight research series assesses goods trade at the metropolitan scale. It uses a unique and comprehensive database to capture all the goods moving in and out of U.S. metropolitan areas, both domestically and beyond. The reports in the series describe which goods move between metropolitan areas, how they move via different modes of transportation, and uncover the specific trading relationships between U.S. metropolitan areas as well as their global counterparts.
  • 4 ways to finance improvements to transportation infrastructure
    From: Financing U.S. transportation infrastructure in the 21st century, May 2015
    Authors: Roger Altman (Evercore), Aaron Klein, Alan Krueger (Princeton University)
    The nation’s transportation infrastructure is eroding and in need of investment. Most policymakers recognize the merits of investing in the system, such as gains in productivity, global competitiveness, and job creation. Low public borrowing rates have created an attractive climate for increased public investment, but government leaders have failed to agree on which investments to make and how to pay for them. The authors of this report propose improvement and expansion of the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act lending program, reauthorization of Build America Bonds, better utilization of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and reform of the federal gas tax. Over the longer term, they recommend investing in research to improve user fee technology and using federal incentives to encourage states to adopt standardized and innovative user fee technology, fostering cooperation in pooled procurement among states and municipalities, and developing and implementing a broad national strategy to guide infrastructure investment in the United States.
  • How public-private partnerships can work as a tool for managing public infrastructure projects
    From: Private capital, public good: Drivers of successful infrastructure public-private partnerships, December 2014
    Authors: Patrick Sabol and Robert Puentes
    This paper provides an overview of basic public-private partnership (PPP) structure, how to consider proper risk and reward sharing, and the purpose and the rationale behind these arrangements, presenting nine recommendations for public leaders as they consider PPPs and is intended to serve as a guide to executing them in the public interest.
  • The benefits of making infrastructure debt more accessible to a wider range of institutions and individuals
    From: Building better infrastructure with better bonds, April 2015
    Authors: Patrick Sabol and Robert Puentes
    The United States finances infrastructure debt in a unique way. While most countries use their central banks, private banks, or multilateral banks like the International Monetary Fund as lenders for big projects, the majority of states and cities across America go directly to citizens for their borrowing needs. Nearly 75% of the $3.6 trillion of outstanding debt issued by cities and states is owned directly or indirectly, usually through a municipal bond fund. This brief discusses three new pragmatic proposals to address America’s infrastructure needs through the creation of new bonding tools: qualified public infrastructure bonds (QPIBs) and two different versions of America Fast Forward (AFF) bonds.
  • Lessons from Europe, Canada, and the U.S. on the promise of “smart cities”
    From: Getting smarter about smart cities, April 2014
    Authors: Adie Tomer and Robert Puentes
    Over the last five years, the concept of the technology-driven “smart city” has captured the imagination of public, private, and nonprofit leaders alike. Against this backdrop, the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program and Barcelona’s ESADE Business School brought together officials from cities throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States to better understand the promise and practice for smart cities around the world today.
  • State and local bond finance represents a powerful but underutilized tool for future clean energy development
    From: Clean energy finance through the bond market: A new option for progress, April 2014
    Authors: 
    Devashree Saha, Lewis M. Milford, Mark Muro, Robert Sanders (Clean Energy Finance Group), and Toby Rittner (Council of Development Finance Agencies)
    This report puts forth a plan for supporting investments in cleantech and green infrastructure by tapping into the bond market, a heretofore underused funding source for clean energy development. To do this, state and local bonding authorities and other partners should do the following: (1) establish mutually useful partnerships between development finance experts and clean energy officials at the sub-national level; (2) expand and scale up bond-financed clean energy projects using credit enhancement and other emerging tools to mitigate risk; (3) improve the availability of data and develop standardized documentation so that the risks and rewards of clean energy investment can be better understood; and (4) create a new clean energy asset class to meet investor demand for fixed-income clean energy securities.

Additional Reading:


All authors are Brookings-affiliated scholars unless otherwise noted.

 

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