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September 14, 2011

Infrastructure ‘Bank’ Doomed to Fail

By

President Obama remains enamored of an “infrastructure bank,” an idea flogged, in one shape or another, for several years now.

All of the proposals floated to date involve creating a new federal bureaucracy that would provide loans and grants for construction or repair projects sought by state or local governments. In some proposals, those funds would be provided via the congressional appropriations process. In others, the bank simply would borrow the money.

But no matter what the source of the cash, this hard fact remains: An infrastructure bank would do little to spur the economic recovery — and nothing to create new jobs.

Such a bank has all the liabilities of the American Revitalization and Investment Act of 2009 (ARRA). You’ll recall that this $800 billion “stimulus” included $48.1 billion for transportation infrastructure. Yet, as the president acknowledged recently and the Heritage Foundation predicted, the funded projects have been very slow to get under way and have had little impact on economic activity.

Why is an infrastructure bank doomed to fail? For starters, it’s not really a bank in the common meaning of the term. The infrastructure bank proposed in the president’s 2011 highway reauthorization request, for example, would provide loans, loan guarantees and grants to eligible transportation infrastructure projects. Its funds would come from annual appropriations of $5 billion in each of the next six years.

Normally, a bank acts as a financial intermediary, borrowing money at one interest rate and lending it to creditworthy borrowers at a somewhat higher rate to cover the costs incurred in the act of financial intermediation. That would not be the case here.

Grants are not paid back. As a former member of the National Infrastructure Financing Commission observed, “Institutions that give away money without requiring repayment are properly called foundations, not banks.”

Infrastructure bank bills introduced by Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat, illustrate the time-consuming nature of creating such a bank. Both bills are concerned — appropriately — with their banks’ bureaucracy, fussing over such things as detailed job descriptions for the new executive team; how board members would be appointed; duties of the board; duties of staff; space to be rented; creating an orderly project solicitation process; an internal process to evaluate, negotiate and award grants and loans; and so on. This all suggests that it will take at least a year or two before the bank will be able to cut its first grant or loan check.

Indeed, the president’s transportation “bank” proposal indicates just how bureaucracy-intensive such institutions would be. It calls for $270 million to conduct studies, administer the bank and pay the 100 new employees required to run it.

In contrast, the transportation component of the ARRA worked through existing and knowledgeable bureaucracies at the state, local and federal levels. Yet, despite the staff expertise and familiarity with the process, as of July — 2½ years after the enactment of ARRA — 38 percent of the transportation funds authorized were still unspent, thereby partly explaining ARRA’s lack of impact.

The president’s fixation on an infrastructure bank as a means of salvation from the economic crisis at hand is — to be polite about it — a dangerous distraction and a waste of time. It also is a proposal that has been rejected consistently by bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate transportation and appropriations committees.

Those rejections have occurred for good reason. Based on the ARRA’s dismal and remarkably untimely performance, an infrastructure bank likely would yield only modest amounts of infrastructure spending by the end of 2017 while having no measurable impact on job growth or economic activity. And whatever it did manage to spend would have to be borrowed, only adding to the deficit.

That’s no way to meet the economic challenges confronting the nation.

Ronald D. Utt is the Morgan Senior Research Fellow in Economic Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Washington Times

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