Market-Based Ideas for Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure

Posted by Content Coordinator on Thursday, February 1st, 2018



Market-based infrastructure ideas - Manhattan InstituteAmerican infrastructure is in dire need of repair and replacement. Yet decades of experience have shown us that simply showering federal money on infrastructure is not the right solution. Indeed, this approach has been shown to encourage wasteful spending on projects that are politically expedient but economically dubious. Large injections of federal funds may encourage spending money on large, new projects while ignoring critical maintenance backlogs on existing infrastructure. Or it may incentivize state policymakers to devote attention to particular communities whose political importance far outweighs their need for new infrastructure.

But despite these pitfalls, the federal government does have a role to play in revitalizing our country’s highways, airports, rail networks, pipelines, electrical grids, and water infrastructure. Over the following pages, Manhattan Institute scholars from a variety of different areas of expertise will sketch what, precisely, that role is. Among their recommendations:

Know the Limits of Privatization

Given all the hurdles associated with the public sector, many have argued that private enterprise should play a larger part in infrastructure provision. While there is space for an increased private role—especially when it comes to America’s airports—handing control of infrastructure provision to the private sector isn’t always the answer. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser’s essay, “Private Infrastructure Provision: The Easy, The Hard, The Impossible” powerfully demonstrates why: privatization makes sense for new, “green field” projects that are likely to generate revenue; it is much harder to locate a role for the private sector in the maintenance of existing infrastructure, which tends not to generate profit yet is the country’s most pressing infrastructure need.

Decentralize Infrastructure Financing and Investment

Glaeser’s second contribution to this series, “If You Build It,” addresses the all-too-common problem of political leaders setting bad infrastructure priorities. New infrastructure investment, Glaeser argues, is best suited to economically expanding places. But too often, politicians prioritize new projects in declining areas where the expenditures can’t be justified on economic grounds. His solution: send more of the authority to make these decisions back to local communities.

Prioritize High-Value Investments

A series of three articles by City Journal contributing editor Nicole Gelinas, all originally published in the New York Post, present some of the most high-value infrastructure projects that the Administration should prioritize. Some of the most important projects include the Gateway tunnel between New York and New Jersey and an interstate highway between Las Vegas and Phoenix. Gelinas argues that policymakers should not worry about borrowing money to fund projects that will pay for themselves, and that the federal government should reward states and cities that have reasonable work rules and a demonstrated history of managing large projects well.

Fix the Highways We Have Before Building New Ones

With 20% of the nation’s roads in poor condition, and the total number of miles driven annually by Americans stagnant, now is not the time to build new highways, writes MI Senior Fellow Aaron Renn in his report “Driverless Cars and the Future of American Infrastructure.” And because of technological innovations such as the self-driving car, the number of cars on the road—and the demands we will have on our highways—are unpredictable. With so much uncertainly ahead, policymakers should maximize the value of their infrastructure investment by fixing the highways we already have.

Privatize Airports

Many of the world’s best airports are run privately, or through public-private partnerships; meanwhile, in the United States, our airports are lagging behind. Flight delays are rampant and the quality of the airports themselves are often “third world,” as former Vice President Biden famously quipped. City Journal contributing editor John Tierney, in his profile of the mismanagement, bloat, and corruption at New York City’s airports, “Making New York’s Airports Great Again,” makes a compelling case for privatization nationwide.

Break  up the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls much of the critical infrastructure in the country’s largest urban center, is corrupt, unwieldy, fiscally unsound, and incompetent. Robert Poole, founder of the Reason Foundation and contributor to a series of Manhattan Institute research on the Port Authority, puts forth a plan for breaking the entire entity up, entitled “Reinventing the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.” A federal infrastructure plan should have incentives for the Port Authority to break apart each of its functions, which include management of a rail transit line, a bus terminal, several airports, and all of the bridges and tunnels across the Hudson River, into separate entities

Clean up the EPA’s Water Mandates

The federal government currently requires cities to undertake massive projects to retrofit their “combined sewers” (sewers in which storm-water runoff and sanitary waste from buildings are channeled into the same pipes to reduce or eliminate overflows of untreated wastewater into local waterways). The cost of these projects often run into the billions, yet the federal government provides almost no funding support. Aaron Renn’s second contribution to this series argues that the EPA should revisit this mandate, and that the federal government should step in to provide more support to cities struggling to complete these projects.

Make the Electrical Grid More Secure, Not Greener

One of the major trends in energy policy has been the move toward “green” grids—electrical grids whose deployment involves a vast expansion of the Internet of Things to achieve energy efficiency goals. But connecting the grid to the internet makes it far more vulnerable to cyber attacks. And while the federal government spends massively on grid efficiency technology, it spends next to nothing on grid security. MI Senior Fellow Mark Mills, in “Exposed: How America’s Electric Grids Are Becoming Greener, Smarter — and More Vulnerable,” argues that the government should prioritize grid reliability and resiliency above all other goals.

Download full version (PDF): Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure – Market-Based Ideas from the Manhattan Institute

About the Manhattan Institute
“The mission of the Manhattan Institute is to develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.The Institute serves as a leading voice of free-market ideas, shaping political culture since our founding in 1977. Ideas that have changed the United States and its urban areas for the better—welfare reform, tort reform, proactive policing, and supply-side tax policies, among others—are the heart of MI’s legacy. While continuing with what is tried and true, we are constantly developing new ways of advancing our message in the battle of ideas.”

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