America Needs a National Infrastructure Board

A national infrastructure board could help prevent wasted time and money in prioritizing infrastructure projects

By Philip K. Howard

Infrastructure is the backbone of an economy. National competitiveness and a sustainable environment require it to be kept up to date. It is no secret that America’s road, rail, water, and power infrastructure systems are woefully out of date. Political leaders say they are committed to fixing it. But nothing happens.

Many projects are no-brainers—not building new rail tunnels under the Hudson River, for example, could result in paralyzing gridlock for 20 percent of the national economy.

But even obvious projects are bogged down in red tape in Washington. Any suggestion by leaders of one party will be reflexively opposed by leaders of the other party. There’s no clear sense of what should get rebuilt, and no political imperative to rationalize the permitting and procurement red tape so that projects can get built in a reasonable timeframe and budget.

What is needed is a credible department that can set priorities, expedite approvals, and avoid pork barrel waste. America needs a National Infrastructure Board, similar to those in other countries:

  •  Australia has an independent infrastructure commission that conducts periodic audits of the country’s infrastructure needs and maintains a rolling list of the most critical projects.
  •  Britain’s National Infrastructure Commission is organized as an independent agency within the Treasury Department. It sets priorities, which, as in Australia, are advisory but have a moral authority that is generally honored by political leaders.
  •  Canada has a stand-alone ministry department, Infrastructure Canada, that’s responsible for developing and prioritizing infrastructure programs nationally, and investing in projects at the local and regional levels.

In America, a National Infrastructure Board should deal with three unique challenges for modernizing infrastructure:

Setting priorities. The political pressures to accommodate projects in all 50 states are overwhelming. Sometimes the politics lead to grotesque misallocations of resources, as with the proposed “bridge to nowhere”—a $400 million bridge to an Alaska island with 50 residents. Other times, political reprisals stall funding, as with President Trump’s refusal to move forward with the Gateway rail tunnel under the Hudson River—despite listing it as the top national priority in 2017—because of an unrelated ongoing feud with Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY ) and Cory Booker (D-NJ).

While projects receiving public funding should ultimately be a political choice, the public should have transparency. The best way to achieve this transparency is for an independent board to maintain a rolling list of national priorities. Then the public spotlight can shine on Congress and the President for deviating from the priorities.

Streamlining permitting. The delay in permitting important infrastructure projects in America is a scandal, sometimes consuming a decade or more. The delay serves no useful purpose. In the Common Good report Two Years, Not Ten Years, we found that a six-year delay more than doubles the effective cost of projects.

The solution is to create clear lines of authority to make needed choices—i) to focus environmental review on important issues, not overturning every pebble; ii) to resolve disagreements among different government agencies; iii) to limit litigation to important issues; and iv) to evaluate the tradeoffs and decide whether to issue the permit and on what terms. Common Good has a three-page legislative proposal that would create those lines of authority.

Avoiding waste in infrastructure contracts. Most public infrastructure projects with federal funding are managed by state and local government agencies. There has been almost no meaningful federal oversight, however, for how wisely the money is spent. Over the decades, work rules have been negotiated with friendly politicians, which results in projects costing a multiple of what a commercial developer would pay.

An exposé by The New York Times found that the Second Avenue Subway cost $2.5 billion per mile, or five times what a similar tunnel cost in Paris, France. The difference is not so much in labor rates but mandated staffing rigidities that require between double and triple the number of workers actually needed, prevent workers from helping out in different tasks, and limit their effective hours.

A 2018 report by the Regional Plan Association compares the wasteful practices in New York with best construction practices, and concludes that savings of 25-33 percent or more could be obtained if, in part, work rules in public projects followed commercial practice, and contracts were awarded on a design-build basis. The National Infrastructure Board should be charged with setting procurement guidelines and enforcing them with audits.

In designing a National Infrastructure Board, “base-closing commissions” offer a valuable model: a bipartisan independent commission whose members are outside experts, not public employees. Congress should authorize a budget to pay for expenses and provide a charter of responsibilities to i) maintain a rolling

list of national and regional infrastructure priorities; ii) advise on environmental and other tradeoffs; and iii) establish procurement best practices and conduct audits and evaluations of projects to provide public transparency for how public monies are spent.

Philip K. Howard is Chair of Common Good and author of the new book Try Common Sense (W.W. Norton, 2019).