When the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago polled an ideological panel of economists on the benefits of infrastructure investment, 98 percent of them agreed that “the federal government has an opportunity to increase average incomes by spending more on roads, railways, bridges and airports.” (The other 2 percent were uncertain.)
Infrastructure investment should be a natural area for bipartisan cooperation. So where are we on that?
Sadly, the toxic partisanship in Washington has derailed (pun intended) what should be a logical place for the two parties to work together.
As with so many other issues, a handful of Centrist Independents could be the catalyst for infrastructure investments that would pay economic dividends for decades, if not longer.
The whole point of building a Centrist Caucus in Washington is to jump start legislative action by offering a vision that combines a common sense desire to govern with the best of what the Republicans and Democrats bring to the table.
Here is what a Centrist Caucus roadmap for infrastructure investment might look like:
1. This can’t be the usual list of pork barrel projects.
Americans are rightfully skeptical that Congress will put infrastructure dollars to good use, as opposed to passing them out as political goodies.
Remember all those economists who thought infrastructure investment was a good idea — in theory. More than half of them also worried that “many of the projects would have low or negative returns.”
Congress needs to develop clear, objective, and measurable criteria for evaluating projects: improving safety; reducing traffic congestion; promoting economic development; reducing carbon emissions; and so on.
Every project can then be scored against those criteria — by an independent body, if necessary — with the best projects getting funded. That is how most private companies develop their capital budgets.
2. The Republicans are right: We should put private capital to use through public-private partnerships.
Government ought to plan for our infrastructure needs; in many cases, the private sector can fund, build, and operate those assets.
Most infrastructure projects spin off revenue: tolls, landing fees, and like. Governments at every level are strapped for cash. The private sector can put up capital for worthwhile projects; in exchange, they get a steady, predictable stream of revenues.
We need better public infrastructure. Nothing about that says government needs to build or operate it.
3. The Democrats are right: Many infrastructure investments should support our environmental goals.
When we get serious about climate change — and we are going to have to get serious — we will have to get more Americans out of their cars.
The U.S. is a global laggard in terms of public transit. Those who drive are often stuck idling in horrific traffic. Meanwhile, a smarter electricity grid is one of the most efficient ways to conserve energy.
America has an enormous capacity to move people and goods in ways that are faster and less polluting than we do now.
4. Whenever possible, consumers ought to pay for the infrastructure they are using, whether it is an airport or a sewer or a bridge.
Making users pay is a way to recoup our investments (which makes the private investment in #2 possible).
Tolls and other kinds of variable pricing are also a powerful tool for preventing congestion. Why is traffic so bad in most metropolitan areas? Because we take a valuable resource (space on the road at 8:30 a.m. on a weekday) and give it away free.
No one likes tolls. But having drivers (and other infrastructure users) pay for what they use is a pretty common sense idea.
5. Infrastructure spending can be a powerful tool for dealing with the next economic downturn.
We need to create a list of pre-approved federal infrastructure projects — like a capital budget — that can be funded more aggressively when we hit an economic rough patch.
When the economy slows, we should be building more. Not only does this put Americans back to work, it is also the cheapest time to be doing construction.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, infrastructure spending would have been a good way to put Americans back to work. Unfortunately, there was a shortage of “shovel-ready projects.”
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton all proposed that we spend more federal money to improve our nation’s infrastructure. Seventy-five percent of Americans agree that would be a good thing to do.
So far, we have done nothing of the kind.
This is a sensible idea with broad support — in other words, exactly the kind of policy a Centrist Caucus would get behind. Let’s start building from the center.
Charles Wheelan is co-chair and founder of The Centrist Project. It was based on his book, "The Centrist Manifesto." He is also the author of Naked Money, Naked Statistics, and other books. Charles teaches public policy at Dartmouth.