Infrastructure Investment at Crossroads

The Columbia River Crossing is just one example of faltering attempts to improve existing infrastructure as voter and ratepayer skepticism grows about footing the bill.Americans have engaged in a running dialogue on what in Abraham Lincoln's day were called public improvements, but what we today, perhaps with less clarity, refer to as infrastructure. 

The debate hasn't really changed over time. Political and business leaders have called for canals, highways and water systems to stoke progress. Individuals, taxpayers and ratepayers have resisted, citing the cost and the benefits that accrue to the few, not the many.

The Great Depression changed the national mind for at least a generation or two. Public works, as Franklin Roosevelt called them, became the engine to put America back to work, while creating roads, bridges, power plants, parks and monuments that would offer opportunities for future generations.

A similar instinct inspired Dwight Eisenhower, after World War II, to begin building an interstate highway system to expand the mobility of Americans, speed the movement of freight, and open vast new vistas for development in what became America's suburbs — where returning veterans could invest in new homes and a new lifestyle.

However, the American consensus on the benefits of public investment seems to be fraying. Congress is unable to approve a transportation bill and is sharply divided over investments such as high-speed rail. States and local governments are experiencing resistance to highways, bridges, sewer and water systems and even new school facilities, in part because federal funding support has shrunk.

Close to home, a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River is in limbo because of disagreements over design and cost. A citizens group is trying to block extension of light rail to Milwaukie. Lake Oswego was forced to abandon a plan to extend the streetcar along the Willamette River from Portland. Voters rejected a bond measure offered by Portland Public Schools.

Regional officials say the Portland metropolitan area may require up to $40 billion in infrastructure investment to accommodate anticipated population growth by 2040. Existing revenue sources, which include a heavy dose of development fees, are only capable of covering half that cost. And the estimate doesn't include emerging forms of infrastructure such as digital bandwidth — a key to Internet access and its use as an education, banking and purchasing portal — and a smart electric grid.

Tea Party activists are credited or blamed, depending on your point of view, for intensifying scrutiny of public works. The skeptical attention projects receive is in sharp contrast to docile public involvement sessions that have previously been a staple of the infrastructure planning process. The new normal is more aggressive questioning, combined with effective grassroots organization. Unaware public officials can be stunned by a wave of angry letters and a hearing room packed with antagonistic citizens.

As the public involvement process unravels, public officials are grappling with eroding funding sources. More fuel-efficient vehicles are undercutting the ability of the gas tax to pay for road maintenance and expansion. There also is ratepayer fatigue in financing updated sewer and water systems.

This has led to infrastructure investment innovation, or at least attempts. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has launched a $7 billion Building a New Chicago plan. Billed as a job-creation strategy, it involves improvements to public transportation, schools, parks, water and sewer pipes and a new airport runway and would be financed by a blend of traditional revenue resources and investments by pension funds, called the Chicago Infrastructure Fund.

Other states, including Oregon, are eyeing public-private infrastructure investment, which is well established in Europe and Canada. It hasn't caught on in the United States because the equity investors who put their capital at risk want higher returns, raising the cost of public works. One possibility is to bundle public-private investments into securities that could be sold to other investors.

Many public officials may be reluctant to dip their toes into these waters, which have eerie similarity to mortgage-backed securities and derivatives. But they may not have many other good choices if voters and ratepayers remain in a sour mood toward funding public asset maintenance and renewal.

That suggests putting the premium on fresh approaches to citizen engagement. Authentic conversations, with as much listening as talking by public officials, serious exploration of alternatives and collaborative decision-making are benchmarks that could make a big difference in moving from hell no to go ahead.