May 26—The infrastructure package, which currently comes with a $1.7 trillion price tag, seeks to deliver new roads and bridges and expands clean energy initiatives. While President Biden is working toward a deal, a broad sweep of complex economic issues has yet to be worked out. To dimension the implications and likely outcome of this initiative, Chief Investment Officer Tony Roth turns to Professor Rick Geddes, director of Cornell University’s Program in Infrastructure Policy.
Rick Geddes, PhD, Founding Director, Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy, Cornell University
Please listen to important disclosures at the end of the podcast.
Wilmington Trust’s Capital Considerations with Tony Roth
Episode 33: Building Back Bridges & Roads? America’s Newest Deal
Tony Roth, Chief Investment Officer, Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, Inc.
Rick Geddes, PhD, Founding Director, Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy, Cornell University
RICK GEDDES: So, I think infrastructure’s a very poor short-term fiscal stimulus. It takes a long time for the projects to ramp up. The way to think about infrastructure is providing the foundation, the basic building blocks that you need for advanced economy for decades in the future.
That was Dr. Rick Geddes, director of Cornell’s program in infrastructure policy. Rick is one of the nation’s renowned experts on the road to rejuvenation for our tired transportation system and much more. He’s here to lend clarity to the very complex infrastructure bill that Washington is working on right now.
TONY ROTH: Welcome to Capital Considerations, the market and economic podcast that’s fully invested in your success. I’m your host, Tony Roth, chief investment officer of Wilmington Trust.
Let’s start with the good news. Republicans and Democrats are actually in agreement on something. The fact that the nation’s infrastructure is in dire need of being repaired or replaced. The not-so-good news, however, is that’s pretty much all they agree on.
To lend insight into how it will play out what sort of deal and compromise will be struck, and how we foot the bill, we’re joined today by Dr. Rick Geddes. Dr. Geddes is a Professor of Policy Analysis, and Management at Cornell University and is director of Cornell’s program in infrastructure policy. He’s a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on infrastructure public and private partnerships. Rick served as a commissioner on the National Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission and as a senior economist on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors during the Bush administration.
Rick, thank you so much for joining us today. I can’t think of anybody that would be a more appropriate guest for this topic.
RICHARD GEDDES: Thanks for inviting me, Tony. Great to be here.
TONY ROTH: Before we begin, I do want to remind everybody that the insights expressed today are totally nonpartisan in intention and Wilmington Trust takes no political position one way or the other. So, with that dispensed and out of the way, Rick, let’s start with a bit of background.
We’re all reading about the President’s massive infrastructure proposal. When was the last time that an administration planned to invest so heavily in what we might refer to as the public sector?
RICHARD GEDDES: One of the things the audience should realize is that Congress doesn’t really pass an infrastructure bill. The way that the federal government supports infrastructure varies enormously across sectors. So, Congress will pass a bill that is focused on transportation, for example. And, you know, in 2005 they passed the SAFETEA-LU highway bill, which reauthorizes spending out of the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Then there’ll be a bill that’s focused on water. The last one passed in 2020 was the WRDA bill. Then there’ll be a separate bill perhaps focused on energy issues. And now, of course, we have the key issue of broadband or internet access across communities.
So, normally the types of issues that Congress deals with in those bills are quite different. There’s different stakeholders in each case. There’s a different set of policy programs. So, the point is that this is very siloed, so you have to look at the specific sector to answer your question, Tony.
The bill that or the fast track that we’re operating under for transportation actually expired last September, and Congress did a continuing resolution for one year. So, that’s in the transportation sector.
Presidents like President Trump have aspired to pass large bills dealing with infrastructure. But it’s challenging. I think most recent presidents, including President Obama and President George W. Bush, have recognized the growing importance of addressing the country’s systematic infrastructure problems.
TONY ROTH: Certainly, there’s a recognition in many places that physical infrastructure needs a lot of TLC. So, when we look at infrastructure bills in the past, and I know it’s not just one bill now, it’s a series of proposals across different industries, whether it be Trump in 2018 or Obama before that, he had some proposals in 2011 and 2014. Typically, either they fail to pass completely. They get significantly delayed. In the best case, they get downsized. And in the case of this particular administration, they have taken a unprecedentedly expansive view of the definition of infrastructure to include all kinds of social programs and other things. Could you even try to make any prediction around what might get passed or how this president may try to negotiate this landscape in a way where he’s more successful with the outcome?
RICHARD GEDDES: So, there’s a lot packed into your question and it’s worth taking a step back I think, first of all, defining infrastructure. That’s part of your question. Then I’ll get to the probability of passage.
And, you know, one of the problems with this debate is what you indicated is that some things to people who study infrastructure, and I’ve been studying it for many years, don’t consider normally to be infrastructure were part of the initial debate. And then, they might be social services. You know, part of the issue is that’s consumption to an economist and not investment. We normally think of infrastructure as public investment where the—typically the private sector can help out.
But it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about two large buckets. One we call network infrastructure and that’s what I think what most people, most listeners will think of when they hear the word infrastructure. This is heavy civil infrastructure, and it is typically part of a network. It has to be part of a network to operate. So, these are drinking water systems or wastewater treatment systems, storm sewer systems where there has to be an interconnected set of pumps, plants, or pipes that are physically interconnected for the system to operate.
Communications increasingly are the same way. They used to be landline telephones. But now, of course, it’s all cellular. But that system of towers and satellites, etcetera, has to be connected and closely in order for that to work.
People don’t think about the aviation network as a network, but it is. So, air traffic control, the actual physical airports, a whole bunch of other systems have to operate properly just for you to take a flight across the country. There’s a whole bunch of systems like that that are networks.
The interstate highway, the road system, so you have to have a complete system of roads, which includes bridges and tunnels, to have that mobility and connectivity that the country’s system gives you. So, that’s what we call network infrastructure. Of course, the emerging area there, Tony, is broadband internet access that is increasingly being recognized as a critical public service. The history of utilities is that we don’t think any communities should be left out of that and that goes back hundreds of years in the U.S. tradition to postal services, for example.
The second bucket, Tony, is what we call social infrastructure, and those are standalone facilities. You know, that is a physical building that provides a public good or service but is not necessarily part of the network. And that’s a school, a prison, a courthouse, a hospital. So, as you and I talk, I think it’s useful to keep those two buckets in mind.
Now, the second part of your question about the likelihood of passage, my sense is that there’s bipartisan interest at this point in getting something done. And the reason I say that is because the two sides appear to be negotiating on the price tag, or the spend. And, as a policy person, I would prefer that there be more bipartisan discussion about policy changes that I think should take place to improve the delivery of infrastructure in the United States.
The President clearly wants a bill to be passed. He’s been known as an infrastructure person for many years, taking the Amtrak from Delaware to Washington. And they’re kind of negotiating over the spend.
But I think this gets to one of the sticking points, Tony, and that is the pay for, right. So, you’re either—how are you going to pay for the improvements in the infrastructure? And it’s useful there to think about three different buckets.
One is some sort of direct user fee and this is a very controversial issue. Are you going to do mileage-based user fees, which the State of Oregon has led in shifting away from a per-gallon tax on gas or diesel fuel to a per mile mileage usage user fee? Or are you going to raise gas taxes, which is in the spirit of a user fee, or raise diesel taxes in order to pay for a transportation bill?
The second thing is there’s a whole set of targeted taxes that are used to in some sense indirectly charge the beneficiaries of the infrastructure for those benefits and then use that revenue to pay for the infrastructure.
And then, the third is kind of what the administration proposed, which is raising an unrelated general tax to pay for the funding, not the financing, but the funding of the infrastructure. And the administration came out with a plan to increase corporate taxes.
Now, to an economist you would say, well, that’s interesting but corporate taxes are not related to the use of the infrastructure. It’s not a user fee. So, we like prices, rates, fees, you know, that we have used to fund utilities for centuries in the United States, per kilowatt hour charge for electricity, per minute of cell phone, cents per dollar for water, whatever the utility is, right.
The tension I think, Tony, really at the congressional level is how are you going to pay for this.
TONY ROTH: Let me unpack something which you’ve laid out for us that there is a difference between revenue that is sourced from the users of the infrastructures in some sense, the networks, or the social infrastructure. And I suppose as an economist there are conceptual advantages to having the people, the users, the actors, that are engaged in the consumption of the infrastructure, the usage of the infrastructure, directly paying. Explain to us why that is preferred, if it is.
RICHARD GEDDES: I mean it’s first couple weeks of what you should get in a good microeconomics class. It’s a price. And so it’s standard. Americans are, you know, used to this. If you go buy a dozen eggs and you eat the dozen eggs, you pay for the eggs. That’s a user fee, right. the fee, the price, the rate is what forms the basis for a market.
There’s a whole series of benefits to relying on user fees instead of general, you know, general taxes to fund. And, again, I’m emphasizing the word fund instead of finance, because that, the confusion between those two things has bedeviled this debate.
But one of the things that it does, the most basic thing is it creates a reliable stream of revenue, anybody participating in this, so a financer, a road tolling company, etcetera, it’s very helpful to know that you have a reliable stream of revenue into the future from user fees that are more predictable than, say, what Congress is going to do or what a state legislature is going to do in terms of a line item in their budget to pay for the infrastructure, you know, across time.
TONY ROTH: If we’re going to get the revenue, we’re going to get the cash in order to maintain, to fix the potholes and the state infrastructure, what’s the difference if it comes from, that cash comes from people that are driving down that road or whether it comes from corporate taxes?
RICHARD GEDDES: The second reason in addition to the notion that you can meet or demand or, well, reliable revenue source is fairness. So, we call that horizontal equity, and this is, again, a familiar principle. It’s that you pay for what you use, right. It’s kind of built into our society.
It’s the same thing for paying for the infrastructure. So, we can tax Amazon and we could tax Google and Facebook and everything else. But those taxes are really not correlated to use, which, you know, somebody could be paying those taxes, however the incidence of that tax falls, and it has no correlation to their use of the infrastructure. And again, this is a principle that we accept in infrastructure funding for a whole bunch of different types of infrastructure like electricity or communications, etcetera. So, it’s a fairness issue.
TONY ROTH: What about appropriateness? In other words, let’s say that you use corporate taxes to pay my electricity bill. And, while part of my electricity bill goes to pay for the actual electricity, I think that the portion that goes to pay for the delivery, which is to say the infrastructure, is even bigger than the actual electricity itself. And it would seem that there is some benefit in having a tightness between the source of the funding and the usage, because otherwise you might get wastage or excess usage that’s not really necessary, which would just needlessly wear down the infrastructure or consume it inefficiently.
RICHARD GEDDES: So, Tony, if I understand your question correctly, you’re getting at a really fundamental issue in infrastructure pricing and it gets into a little economics, but it’s marginal cost versus average cost. So, the idea is that to send, say, a gallon of water through the water system that’s already built, which is the marginal cost or the cost of the next gallon, is very low. But the problem is you have to pay off this big fixed cost, which is the cost of installing the pumps, the plants, and pipes and putting them in the ground.
The different sectors have different terms for that, institutional costs, overhead costs, etcetera. And it’s really paying off those fixed costs and how do you allocate those fixed costs across different customer groups turns out to be a huge issue in utility pricing.
So, all I’ll say here, Tony, is that there’s established approaches for addressing that problem and that should not deter us from moving toward a system where users pay. So, again, it’s the funding issue that I think is the underlying sticking point between the two sides to get back to your original question of the likelihood of passage.
TONY ROTH: Yeah. So, let’s—and I’m not sure I’d get a very good grade in your class. But let’s get to so just give us the bottom line at this stage. And we’re not going to hold you to it. We understand it’s pretty early. What do you think will happen? Does this strike you as a bill that they’re going to get to yes without going through reconciliation and trying to jam something down the Republicans’ throats or do you think that the latter is ultimately the default? What do you think will get done?
RICHARD GEDDES: I really think that something will get done, Tony. I, and I think it’ll cross sectors. I think it will have a different flavor. In transportation, this is a good time for Congress to do reauthorization of highway spending. A water bill is actually done every two years roughly. And so, they’ll actually be thinking about a water bill.
The other thing that’s really interesting, Tony, is broadband. I think there’s a real national desire to see Congress think hard, and the Administration, to think hard about addressing universal service or providing universal access to all communities, whether urban or rural, to some minimal level of service in communications in broadband.
The other thing you and I have not discussed, but with, you know, recent events like the Colonial Pipeline, is resilience and that could be to cyber security threats, hacking, etcetera. And so, there’s all these forces that are coming together where I think the people of the country really want to see Congress do a good job on a series of bills. I’m optimistic.
TONY ROTH: So, when you talk about one of the things that you’ve raised that I’ve caught a few times here is, and I’m sure our listeners have too, is that you’ve referred to what you’re denoting as infrastructure that we all know is owned by private companies, like the Colonial Pipeline, like the cell towers, like the wires in the ground that carry internet. And are we talking about the government giving handouts to private companies so they can make more money? Are we talking about the government partnering with private companies?
How does that ecosystem actually play effectively? And it strikes me as something that would be very ripe for potential abuse by private companies to tap into that public funding source perhaps. But how does that all come together? And I know that the intersection of public and private is one of your primary areas of research and focus.
RICHARD GEDDES: Yeah. So, that’s a great question, Tony. I recently saw some calculations on this. So, most of the stuff that I think people think of when they think of simple infrastructure, drinking water systems, again, wastewater treatment system, roads, interstate highways, etcetera, are not owned by the federal government. They’re not owed by private companies. They’re owned by state and local governments. So, that means that the state and local government is responsible, you know, for taking care of them, for the operation and maintenance.
Certainly, there’s a lot of infrastructure in the United States that’s private. Freight rail, right, the freight, the big freight rail companies are obviously private. Investor-owned utilities, IOUs, generate a lot of the electric power that we use, particularly that’s not hydroelectric sourced power. You know, telecommunications. For a lot of the stuff that I think people are most worried about in terms of poorly maintained, you know, potholes, slow technological adoption, that’s another big issue is technological change, it’s the state and local government and it would have to be, to get to your question, a private company interacting through some sort of a contract, typically a long-term contract with a private company.
And so, that gets into, as you said, one of my areas of research called public/private partnerships, which is really just a fancy term for a long-term contract between a public infrastructure owner, such as a state or local government, and a private company. And this is what is done around the world in terms of improving the delivery of infrastructure and delivery includes the whole thing, design, construction, operation, maintenance, financing, upgrades, permitting, all these things. And so, there’s a whole bunch of improvements that I think the United States could make in terms of better partnerships between these state and local infrastructure owners and the federal government.
TONY ROTH: So, without getting too technical, one of the terms that I remember from law school myself in contracts are whether you know a contract is a fair contract doesn’t reflect an arm’s-length negotiation, the price that is. And so, when you look at, generally, the participation of the private sector in this multifaceted infrastructure world, do you find that the prices or the arrangements that are agreed to are—do reflect an arm’s-length process? Or do you find that that’s one of the problems, that you have companies that have been dominant and have cozy relationships with municipalities and such and are able to essentially hold hostage communities or governments, either explicitly or implicitly through their relationships take advantage here? Is that an abusive problem that we need to worry about when the private sector gets involved or are we just always better off with the private sector involved because they’re so much more efficient than the public sector?
RICHARD GEDDES: Yeah. It’s a great question, Tony. And, absolutely, we should be concerned about that, right, at all times. And that’s particularly true because a lot of the state and local infrastructure owners in the United States are small, right. So, that’s one unique thing about our country. As we know, there’s a lot of small towns, municipalities.
So, Tony, I’ve suggested, and others have suggested a number of ways for dealing with that. The other problem, of course, is some of the projects in these small towns are so small that they don’t attract the attention. They don’t attract bids from big companies.
So, one of the things I’ve advocated, Tony, is bundling and this is bundling projects together that are similar into one large project proposal that is put out for bid. My favorite example is the Pennsylvania Rapid Bridges Project where the State of Pennsylvania as you may know has a lot of low-use rural bridges that go over rivers and streams that are kind of old. They bundled together 550 of those bridges into one big project proposal and bid it out and they, of course, multi-billion-dollar proposal, they got interest from companies around the world, which allowed the state to replace and repair those bridges much faster than if they went individual bridge-by-bridge. So, that’s a case where you bundle that together. That’s one solution.
TONY ROTH: Let’s get back to the main event here, which is the bill on the table. And, certainly one of the really interesting and novel aspects of this bill which was headline-grabbing is that it does have this big green energy component to it. So, it has, for example, you know, taking out the gas station and putting in a charging station or something like that, right, on all the street corners in America.
What’s your take on that? What are the most interesting or important takeaways from this big-green emphasis in this particular infrastructure bill in your mind, Rick?
RICHARD GEDDES: Yeah. Again, a very, very good point, Tony. So, that’s actually an interesting shift I think that’s taken place, bipartisan shift in infrastructure delivery, if you will. And that is a focus on new technologies, but also a focus on more renewable environmentally friendly, as you say green technologies. That can include wind. Of course, it can include solar. It can include geothermal energy and it can also include technologies that improve efficiency of infrastructure delivery, solar cells on top of a gas station, for example, etcetera. And there’s a lot of incentives, there have been historically, you know, to improve the adoption of these sort of non-fossil fuels, right, to power the electric grid.
The flipside of that, Tony, of course, is encouraging more electric vehicles, right, EVs. So, there’s a big emphasis on charging stations in the original proposal right at, you know, helping again the state and local folks who own the infrastructure, you know, to install charging stations. There’s a whole lot of very interesting things that that brings up. There’s a lot of, by the way, big technological revolution going on as we speak in powering vehicles, getting away from fossil fuels.
It’s not just electric. There’s a whole bunch of new power systems and I think there’s a bipartisan interest in moving the transportation network toward a more environmentally friendly fuel source.
TONY ROTH: You’re hopeful that will be within the scope of what comes out of this, even though obviously it’s going to be bipartisan and the Republicans would need to sign into that? You still think we may get something that includes some of this green legislation?
RICHARD GEDDES: I do. It’s an interesting thing. I think that characterizing it as it has been in some cases as a Green New Deal, as if it were some sort of blanket wave of change like the New Deal during the Great Depression, has mischaracterized the way this is evolving. It’s much, much more micro-oriented, focused on tax credits, speeding permitting, encouraging the development of interstate highway rest stops that states own actually to include charging stations, you know, things like that that are on a much more micro level but still collectively represent a big shift in the way we’re powering our transportation network.
And you see. I mean Volvo announced that they’re not going to make any gasoline cars anymore, right.
TONY ROTH: Even General Motors has said that, you know, not immediately but as of a certain date, you know, 10-15 years from now, which is really remarkable. I’ve had a Tesla on order for about six months now and they can’t get the car to me. But the only silver lining maybe is by the time they can get the car to me, and it’s literally been on order for six months now, maybe I’ll get a $10,000 tax credit for buying that car, right.
It does highlight, I think, an issue that’s worth a little bit of conversation, which is the timing of all of this. So, even if we do get a package, and we just had a very weak labor report, it came in much lower than expected and we think that the reason is supply.
What do you think about the economic impact of a reasonably sized deal over the next year or so? Is it going to take so long to get these projects going and find the right people to supply the labor that this is going to be a long-term benefit to the economy, that we’re not really going to see a quick uptake? Or should we think about it differently?
RICHARD GEDDES: So, that’s a good question, Tony. So, this gets to one of the points I always try to make when referring to infrastructure. So, I think infrastructure’s a very poor short-term fiscal stimulus and it is so for the reasons you’ve just mentioned. It takes a long time for the projects to ramp up and actually get into full swing.
The second point is that if any, anyone who visits a site on a major infrastructure project today I think would be surprised at how automated it is. It’s not 1956 where people are carrying, you know, rebar on their shoulders out to the interstate highway site. It is highly automated, and you would, I think, be surprised at how much work a small crew of people can get done on a modern bridge, tunnel, or road project. It’s very sophisticated.
If you want to generate employment, it’s not a good short-term stimulus. There’s other ways to do fiscal Keynesian stimulus. But having said that, the way to think about infrastructure is providing the foundation, the basic building blocks that you need for advanced economy for decades in the future.
Some of the bridges built today, like the new Tappan Zee, the Mario Cuomo Bridge, or the new Goethals Bridge, or the new locks on the Panama Canal, are designed to last 100 years. That’s a century of providing the basic services from this infrastructure and that’s the way we should think about it economically. It provides for decades into the future these fundamental services like mobility, right, so better connectivity between people and jobs, better connectivity between people and other communities, right. And so, that’s the foundation we should think about in a very long-term sense, not I think a short-term stimulus sense.
TONY ROTH: Well, Rick, we’re going to wrap it up there. It’s been a really interesting conversation. Let me, as I always do, summarize what I think are some key takeaways for us.
First, I’d say that we, specifically you but you’re the expert here, believe that something will get done this time, something meaningful out of Washington, that there’s real bipartisan interest in certainly from a traditional definitional standpoint doing something to advance the state of infrastructure, the networks, maybe even the social infrastructure, meaning buildings and other standalones to improve where we stand as a country. And it just seems like even though the fiscal payoff may be years down the road, it does seem like getting something like this done is a political benefit for the participants of the process. So, that’s the first thing is that we’re optimistic here that something’s going to happen.
Second is that public/private overlap or intersection does seem to be an important element of how these infrastructure opportunities are executed and that from an investing standpoint there seems to be a lot of opportunity, not just in the green space, but across the economy to take advantage. It could be materials. It could be delivery of NLPs, delivery of precious hydrocarbons. Lots of different ways from an investment standpoint take advantage of it. And, in fact, we’re doing that in our portfolios already and we’ve been overweight industrials here at Wilmington Trust for some time. So, that’s the second thing.
And the third takeaway I think is that this is probably the first time that we’ve got a real opportunity to do something green. You know, you called it, Rick, the Green New Deal maybe and we’ll see if it happens or not. But there’s a real opportunity that has some degree of meaningful bipartisanship buy-in that would suggest that the leadership of this administration there’s real interest in trying to tamp down the use of hydrocarbons and support other ways of running the economy. And that’s, I think that’s exciting and that presents, again, its own set of investment opportunities that we continue to focus on.
I’ll give you one last bite at the apple, Rick, before we close. Anything else that you’d add to that list of key takeaways?
RICHARD GEDDES: Yeah. So, Tony, I would add changing the real focus of infrastructure owners, and again that’s mainly state and local governments, from a design/build, building out new vast networks of infrastructure, whether it’s interstate highways or water or power, to changing a focus to operation and maintenance. So better, more efficiently operating, which includes technological adoption, and there’s a technological revolution in infrastructure going on right now and maintaining what we have. Don’t allow maintenance to be deferred any longer. So, shifting their attention from really an old, older system that was designed to build out new stuff to better taking care and operating what we have already. So, that’s more of an operation and maintenance mentality.
TONY ROTH: That’s great. Well, there’s so much here and so much reason to watch what’s going to happen here in Washington. So, Rick, I want to thank you for your insights today. I want to thank our listeners for joining. And I encourage everybody to visit wilmingtontrust.com for a roundup of all of our investment and planning content.
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