From “Can-Do” States to a “Can-Do” Nation?

Guest post by Jessica Hersh-Ballering

On July 12, the Brookings Institution hosted an impressive forum and panel discussion focusing on the innovative methods that certain “can-do” states are using to maintain and update local infrastructure, even as federal leadership and predictable funding disappear.

Titled “Can-Do States: A New Era for Infrastructure Investment,” the forum featured Bruce Katz and Robert Puentes from Brookings, Luis Fortuño, former governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and partner at Steptoe & Johnson, LLP, and others.

Puentes described “can-do” states as those “working to develop new rules, new tools, and new institutions to fund and finance infrastructure projects and engage in new kinds of problem-solving.” He said that “while we do believe that the federal government should play a strong role [in infrastructure investment], there does appear to be a structural change in the federal budget when it comes to discretionary spending, with things like infrastructure…getting squeezed out.”

The speakers cited state revolving loan funds, infrastructure banks, and public-private partnerships among the methods “can-do” states are using to fund infrastructure projects.

Fawn Johnson, correspondent for the National Journal, moderated the morning’s panel discussion, which featured Larry Blain, chair of Partnerships, BC, Michael Cheroutes, director of High Performance Transportation Enterprise (a government-owned business enterprise within the Colorado Department of Transportation), Tony Kinn, Director of the Virginia DOT’s Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnerships, and Margaret Tobin, Executive Director of the New York Works Task Force.

All of the panelists highlighted public/private partnerships as a valuable tool in this “new era,” when federal funding is scarce and public opposition to taxes is strong. While Blain suggested that the United States is a latecomer in its use of PPPs, Tobin argued that the United States actually invented them in 1789, when Congress passed legislation for a toll road. Tobin said that many great U.S. projects – including the Brooklyn Bridge and the New York City subway system – are the result of PPPs. It was only when the private financial markets failed during the Great Depression that the government assumed almost exclusive responsibility for infrastructure investment in the United States.

Whether through public/private partnerships or other means, the speakers and panelists emphasized the importance of infrastructure investment to our nation’s economic recovery. Puentes reminded the audience that, “according to the World Economic Forum, U.S. infrastructure has fallen from the best in the world to 25th – in the span of just 10 years.”

Clearly, “can-do” state and local governments are helping to find a path forward in a nation that needs to find new ways to invest in its infrastructure.

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