President Obama's New Infrastructure Plan:
Right Idea, Wrong Play Call

By Jacob Anbinder

When the Super Bowl champions visit the White House this spring, President Obama will no doubt shake Patriots coach Bill Belichick's hand and congratulate him on a job well done.

But with the release of his proposed budget and infrastructure plan on Monday, Obama might want to give a call to Seattle coach Pete Carroll -- to talk about how he can move forward after calling the wrong play.

That's because, while there's a lot to love in the proposal, the president's plan suffers from the same problem that doomed the Seahawks' offense on that final, fateful drive: It's good at knowing where it needs to go, but it overthinks how it's supposed to get there.

New Programs
Like any presidential budget, Obama's plan for fiscal year 2016 is, above all else, a wish list.

Little surprise, then, that on matters related to transportation and infrastructure, it calls for nearly across-the-board spending increases, reflecting the president's strong commitment (rhetorically, at least) to fixing the dilapidated public works that plague the United States.

Still, it's hardly a kneejerk proposal. While there are the usual increases in federal highway spending and the continuation of many existing programs, the vision that the president lays out for the future of U.S. infrastructure policy is, in some respects, far bolder and more nuanced than some might have expected.

Nowhere is this more the case than with urban infrastructure policy. In Obama's plan, the Department of Transportation would oversee the creation of several promising new programs aimed at encouraging smart investments in mass transit.

Through a new Bus Rapid Transit Corridor Program, for example, the DOT would use discretionary funds to help local governments build what transportation experts have long known to be one of the most efficient and cost-effective forms of mass transit. In doing so, the department might undo some of the damage caused by years of awarding grant money to transit projects of more questionable utility, such as the numerous streetcar lines that have opened thanks in part to federal funding.

In addition, a Metropolitan Transportation Planning Program would incentivize cities and suburbs to cooperate on transportation issues of regional importance, and a new Transportation Alternatives Program would award grants to projects focused on "quality of life improvements."

New Ways to Finance
The president's plan would also begin to address one of the less-discussed problems with U.S. infrastructure policy: the recent decline of traditional municipal financing.

Historically, many of our most important public works were financed through issuance of municipal bonds, which, thanks to their tax-exempt status, are able to compete on the bond markets with higher-interest private debt. And today, historically low interest rates mean that governments can borrow for infrastructure essentially for free, as Matthew Yglesias noted recently in Vox.

But instead of taking advantage of the moment to raise money for new projects, governments have instead used the opportunity to refund existing debt at lower rates. Despite our need for increased infrastructure spending, "new capital" municipal issuance in 2014 was nearly $40 billion less in real terms than in 1996, according to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

The Obama infrastructure plan would tackle this issue on two fronts. At the national level, new bond programs would issue federal debt for the sole purpose of infrastructure investment. Locally, the administration proposes to remove the tax exemption for bonds that go toward building stadiums and arenas -- a pet peeve of progressives and fiscal conservatives alike -- with the idea of directing more money toward infrastructure projects that benefit the general public rather than a professional sports franchise.

1 | 2 | Next Page››

Recent Blog

Blog Archives