Updated: Jun 28
The infrastructure bill now being proposed to be rushed through by the Democrats covers a lot of territory ranging from telecommunications to housing to transportation to postal. You name it, it is likely there. A few comments are in order. These are not unique, except for timing, to any government proposed large-scale infrastructure program.
Any program like this risks turning into another boondoggle. There is always a lot of waste connected with these types of large infrastructure programs, and maybe that is inevitable to a certain degree. There are inefficiencies, corruption, and favoritism, but perhaps the most tragic is waste on projects which are ill-conceived, lock-in an inappropriate technology or programs, maybe shouldn’t have been done in the first place, or could have been accomplished more effectively. Infrastructure needs an enormous amount of money and therefore a large amount of careful thought and planning is needed, especially when resources are limited. Additionally, while planning for the initial project is important, so are the activities around maintenance costs and how these costs are funded.
Everyone knows that the overall state of our infrastructure across the US is abysmal. In many cases it is outdated and poorly maintained, even to the extent of being dangerous, inadequate for our needs, antiquated in many instances, and ill-suited for an advanced economy. Certainly, the infrastructure needs of the future are likely to be vastly different than those we’ve relied on in the past. And the current pandemic may dramatically change or radically speed-up future transformations of our social and economic life and related infrastructure needs. For instance, will there be more work performed at home? Will there be less commuting resulting in different traffic patterns which may increase the use of residential streets and decrease the use of major highways? Do we really need to repair all those bridges and other deteriorating structures – perhaps we can eliminate some of them or reduce load limits or utilize temporary fixes instead of more expensive permanent fixes? I don't have the answers to these questions but they and a whole host of related issues need to be carefully considered so as to spend new infrastructure money wisely.
To what extent should the private sector be involved in implementing the objectives of any infrastructure bill Can the government monies be leveraged up through participation of the private sector in a manner that yields a multiplier effect on their effectiveness? Is this good public policy and to what extent does private sector ownership of infrastructure assets undermine larger societal needs and objectives? Can that conflict be resolved with innovative contracting agreements that allow the public to still have a say in infrastructure operation and maintenance and perhaps costs, tolls and other charges and rates of increase thereof.?
There are many such important issues to be considered here with respect to any major government infrastructure bill. We should carefully study and develop criteria and the most appropriate ways to satisfy that criteria relating to future infrastructure needs, funding, and implementation
And one must have a healthy degree of skepticism about whether any such major program -- that will require much planning and extend for years – is an effective strategy to solve shorter-term employment problems. One should also question whether these infrastructure programs will really effectively help the untrained or disadvantaged who may need the most immediate attention in government programs. There are smaller scale and WPA-type programs that may address near-term employment and jobs retraining. Large, complex infrastructure programs should not be thought of in that regard.
Federal funding can lead to even more delays and costs - indeed federally funded infrastructure projects can be much more expensive and take much longer to deliver due to bureaucratic red-tape imposed by the government and these added costs and delays can be significant, adding years to project implementation and leading to massive cost overruns.
There is certainly a role and need for major infrastructure programs such as are now being proposed, if carefully considered and structured. But in view of all of our other pressing problems, many of which are immediate, will adequate care and thought be given to a massive infrastructure bill in these critical times or should this be temporarily shelved until it can get the appropriate degree of attention, thought and reflection?
These should all be important considerations in deciding whether to push head-long with such a program at this time. It could be more prudent to wait until things better clarify themselves, particularly as to what the infrastructure needs of the future will be as changes in our way of life, work and related matters unfold over the next months.