Marcia Hale is President of Building America’s Future (BAF) Educational Fund. She partook in an informative discussion for Bloomberg in Washington D.C. on November 14th, with other panelists including the mayors of Washington, D.C. and Oklahoma City, discussing the importance of funding infrastructure projects at the local level. She sits down with us for follow-up questions and to discuss areas of our infrastructure with the most pressing need for attention.
American Infrastructure: In addition to the 16 areas now designated as infrastructure by the ASCE, what other areas does the BAF feel deserve designation as infrastructure?
Marcia Hale: We have a broad definition of infrastructure. Obviously, we at BAF have an emphasis on transportation infrastructure, but we really do consider it larger than that. It’s a larger issue and a larger challenge concerning all infrastructure across the country, including water, broadband, and many others. We have not delved into schools, but we would not disagree with that. It just comes down to the different ways to fund things for different types of infrastructure. Schools, for instance, would be very different.
AI: Are there preferred methods or funding options that the BAF stands behind?
Hale: We do think there’s a vital need for there to be true funding for some projects, and that would mean federal, state and local government. We need to up the amount of money that we spend on our critical infrastructure, and a lot of that comes from the fact that there is no return on investment for the private sector to do a lot of projects. However, where it does make sense to bring the private sector in for financing, we are proponents of that. It comes down to the fact that not every project across the country has the potential for return that the private sector investor would be interested in. For instance, there are about 70,000 bridges in this country that need to be fixed, and maybe one in seven of those you could put a toll on. But the others, there’s just no possible way for them to sustain any kind of tolling, and thus there’s no reason for the private sector to get into that type of project. So, we really need both funding and financing.
It comes down to the fact that not every project across the country has the potential for return that the private sector investor would be interested in.
AI: A great point made in the discussion was the fact that there is little incentive for most elective officials to spearhead a project that most likely will not come to fruition under their tenure. Is there—or should there—be anything in the works to incentivize elected officials to initiate large public works projects that they’ll receive little to no credit for?
Hale: If you did something along the lines of a national infrastructure bank or state or regional banks, it would incentivize elected officials to look long term. This project might take, for example, four to five years, and if there was true financing and there was a way to prove how important it is to the community then yes, that’s the way to do it. The other way, if you had true funding from the federal or state government and you could show how it was going to improve the community I would suggest that. About 70 percent of local initiatives get approved across the country. The reason for that is the mayor, or the county administrator, or whomever is the chief elected official, makes a case for a certain project and people see how it’s actually going to improve their lives. Thus, they’re willing to either raise their sales tax or do a bond initiative or whatever. However, once that gets translated to Washington D.C., people can’t see the benefit for their city or their state or even their region. So, that’s a large part of the problem, and we have to find some way to show people on a federal level why these projects are needed and how it will improve their lives.
AI: For that reason, do you think the future of leadership for infrastructure projects needs to come at the state level?
Hale: While states have a huge role in this, as do cities, they’re always going to need a federal partner, especially for really large projects that involve two or three states or more. You’re always going to need some entity that has the wherewithal to bring about really large projects, like the tunnel between New York and New Jersey that needs to be built that would impact not only on New York and New Jersey but other surrounding states like Connecticut and others. It wouldn’t be possible for just one state to do that. Other things, like high speed rail across the country, the federal government needs to be a partner in that. There’s almost no high speed rail in the world that exists without some type of federal funding, or at least assessment. So, if we’re going to do these really large projects, we’re going to need the federal government to be involved. Not to say that they have to pay for it all, but we need the large scale planning and some funding.
AI: In addition to these topics, what was one of the more poignant moments of the discussion that stood out for you?
Hale: I’ve always been quite appreciative of when mayors talk. They make the most sense: they are the most pragmatic, they are the least partisan—in governing their cities, they may run as a Democrat, Republican, Independent, or what have you—but they are directly on the front line, every day. They have to try things, and they have to talk to their constituents every day, getting immediate feedback by living with the people they represent. Because of that, I find that when you can get enough mayors in a room, you end up with some very pragmatic solutions and you have much more innovation.
To learn more visit bafuture.org.