Tag Archives: public works

Are We Selling the Future Too Cheap?

Public concern and even occasional outrage over potholes, broken water mains, sewage spills, and closed bridges have been appearing with some regularity in the U.S. news media and blogosphere. Unemployment has been persistently high, particularly in construction. Interest rates have been at historic lows for several years. So why have we not seen an explosion of infrastructure investment?

Yes, we did have the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), meant to be a down payment on government action to modernize the nation’s infrastructure, enhance energy independence, and put people to work in the process.  The sudden spending sent government agencies scurrying for “shovel-ready” projects, but the law’s requirements that money be spent quickly precluded any real investment.

Before that, the sale to the private sector of long-term leases on the Indiana Toll Road and Chicago Skyway allowed the government sellers to redeploy some of the proceeds into new facilities, but no new resources were mobilized.

These instances notwithstanding, for the most part we have avoided what Adam Smith described as one of three duties of government, “the erection and maintenance of the public works which facilitate the commerce of any country, such as good roads, bridges, navigable canals, harbours” and the like. (The Wealth of Nations, Book 5, Ch. 1, Part 3)

Public works infrastructure, like a home, represents a commitment to the future.  We use  resources we have now to create something that we imagine will bring us benefits tomorrow.  For infrastructure, as for homes, we expect “tomorrow” to extend for decades.

An easily understood and accepted but nevertheless fundamental principle for making such investments is that we should get more benefits out of the infrastructure than the resources we have to put in for construction and and operation.  Putting the principle into practice, however, deciding exactly what resources we should invest and how, is not such a simple matter.  The future is uncertain.  People’s priorities change.  Our money, time, land, and other resources are limited.  We have many competing demands for using those resources.

So  it is not obvious if future benefits will be greater than the costs of a particular infrastructure investment. We need tools to help us decide.

One of the most widely used tools is “discounted cash flow” (DCF) analysis.  DCF is a way to compare costs incurred and benefits received over some defined time period to judge whether the total benefits exceed the total costs.

Essential to DCF analysis is the idea of a “time value of money,”  that everyone would prefer to have a dollar in hand today rather than waiting until next year for the same amount. We might be willing to wait if we were going to receive a larger amount, say $1.15. The idea is that funds to be received in the future are worth less than funds in hand today.

The measure of money’s time value is the “discount rate,” conventionally the percentage reduction in value per year of waiting.  In the example above, the discount rate is 15%.

Discount rates look a lot like interest rates, the rate to be paid for a home mortgage, for instance, the rate that what banks charge for credit-card loans, or what bondholders receive for lending their money to a corporation. In fact, there is not much difference, except that interest  rates really apply to money only.

Discounting is applied to many benefits and costs to which we assign monetary values. For example, we discount the value of time commuters will save over the next 15 years to a supposedly equivalent present amount to justify building the extra highway lanes that we expect will speed travel.

When the discount rate is larger, investments not likely to yield returns until many years after resources are invested look less attractive.  When the rate is smaller, future returns look more valuable in the present.  Most of the time, the very long time periods over which we expect to realize the benefits of physical infrastructure–three to five decades and longer–do not count for much in the economic analysis because the discounted present values are low. Given a choice between a short-lived but high-benefit investment (attracting a major sports event, for example) and a steady but lower annual return over many years (a new rail transit line, perhaps), high discount rates favor the former.

Very low interest or discount rates should then encourage investment in infrastructure.  For a variety of reasons, U. S. interest rates have been at historic lows for several years. In addition, expressions of public concern and even occasional outrage over potholes, broken water mains, sewage spills, and closed bridges appear with some regularity in the news media and blogosphere.

So, once again, why are we not seeing an explosion of infrastructure investment?

People are thinking about infrastructure as if there will be no tomorrow.  Interest rates may be low, but the discount rates people are using–subliminally–to assess their investment opportunities, are a lot higher.

People who study such matters suggest that rates have three components.  The first component is in fact a financial market interest rate representing the payments that presumably very reliable borrowers—governments and their central banks, for example—must make for the privilege of using other people’s money.  The second component represents a premium presumed to compensate for a possibly less reliable borrower and what risks the lender potentially faces related to the conditions of lending, such as the length of time until the loan is to be repaid and whether the lender has offered any security—the house in the case of a mortgage loan, for example.  The third component is meant to account for the uncertainty of future events and the risk that events will make it  impossible for the lender to recover fully the amount lent.

So if the public loses confidence that people responsible for infrastructure are not likely to be reliable stewards over the coming decades, they will insist on higher rates of return, discount rates. If they feel that the future is less certain to be like the conditions of the past, they will look for a higher discount rate. Sea levels rising, financial crises, political gridlock: higher discount rates demanded.

But we do not have to be paralyzed by such uncertainties. The creators of Iran’s qanats that still supply municipal and agricultural water after nearly 3 millennia, China’s Great Wall, Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, and even such recent works as the Panama Canal and the Golden Gate Bridge would not have persisted without a vision that they were building for a long-term future.  We should not discount so deeply our own future.

Infrastructure principles to live by

As a child fascinated by tales of exploration and archeology of the artifacts of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Incan civilizations, I built models of balsa-wood and modeling clay to recreate in my room the temples and fortresses pictured in my books.  I channeled my university studies toward building things, the bigger the better, I thought, as my training progressed.  In graduate school I encountered Albert O. Hirschman, a Harvard economist whose seminal  book introduced me to the ideas of social overhead capital—the etymological precursor of what we mean today by economic or societal infrastructure—and its essential role in economic development. (1958, The Strategy of Economic Development, New Haven: Yale University Press)  I wrote a doctoral dissertation on “systems of constructed facilities,” and from there moved on to planning and design of new cities, airports, highways, and investment policy.  I guess it is fair to say I have been interested in infrastructure for a while, and maybe a wonk on the subject.

In any case, I was excited by the opportunity in 1992 to work with a National Research Council committee seeking to gain an understanding of what might be done to address the problems underlying the nation’s increasingly distressing instances of infrastructure inadequacy, failure, collapse, and destruction.  The group spent more than a year talking to people from cities around the country and extracting from their experience a set of three broad principles for acting locally to address what were agreed to be national and even global problems. (The committee’s report was published as In Our Own Backyard: Principles for Effective Improvement of the Nation’s Infrastructure, 1993; Washington, DC: National Academies Press)

The principles themselves are fairly straightforward, albeit cryptic: (1) Geography matters. (2) The paradigm is broadening. (3) Value the “public” in public works.

My interpretation has perhaps shifted in the years since we wrote the report.  First, infrastructure should be tailored to the specific physical, environmental, social, and economic characteristics of the area to be served.  However, these various characteristics are connected in complex ways that make the tailoring difficult, and we need good data to achieve a good fit.  Second, all infrastructure has to be understood as providing multiple services, having not just a single function.  Thinking that our highways simply let us move from place to place and water systems only provide a clean supply when we turn the tap is—pardon the possible pun—tunnel vision; we need to broaden our perspectives in funding, designing, and operating each piece of infrastructure and address the system the pieces comprise.  Third, the public is a part of the infrastructure, not simply a customer, investor, or impediment. We as a society and our infrastructure are engaged in an evolving dialogue; the better we understand our role in that evolution, the more likely it is that future generations will appreciate the legacy of our infrastructure investment.

Two decades later, I think these principles are still relevant and important.  They are also, unfortunately, no more representative of current practice than they were when written.

(A footnote:  In the course of earlier work for the National Research Council, I found that the word “infrastructure” itself was hardly used at all before 1980. (For example, see Infrastructure for the 21st Century: Framework for a Research Agenda, 1987.) Typing it into Google’s search field today returns some 270 million hits.  “Social overhead capital,” has not caught on with the Internet public, showing up not quite 8.1 million times.  “Principles of infrastructure” returns some 1.82 million hits. Narrowing down to “principles of economic infrastructure” yields 315,000; replace “economic” with “societal” and you drop to just over 9,000.  For comparison, “ten commandments” gets 4.4 million hits and “principles to live by” 820,000!)

Our roads, our legacy

The nation’s network of roads, taken together, is the legacy of investments made over the course of many decades. The legacy includes land committed to enabling people and goods to be moved from place to place, and with that land forests and grasslands cleared, streams diverted, and flora and fauna displaced. Added to these natural resources are concrete, steel, and other materials, and the human labor of planning and construction to produce the pavement and bridges, signs and signals, guardrail and rest areas that daily carry millions of vehicles.

Despite the efforts of clever analysts, there is no authoritative appraisal of this legacy’s current value. That the legacy has any value at all is a proposition based on our society’s desire for access and mobility and our adoption of  economics as a way of understanding and directing our behavior.  The protracted discussions in the U. S. Congress and many state legislatures concerning how we pay for roads and government’s role in their management is a reflection of our lack of consensus on the value of the legacy and what we should do with it in the future.

It’s as though we are beneficiaries gathered for the reading of the will following the demise of a wealthy relative. We’ve inherited a family estate and now must decide what’s to be done with the property.  Is there a substantial bank account, stocks and bonds?  Do any of us want to live in the mansion; can we afford it?  What’s to be done with the art collection?  Is the land still to be farmed or subdivided for development?  Can the gardens and fen be conserved?

Our legacy is a diverse collection of assets.  The fundamental questions facing us are whether to use these assets to realize the greatest return to the beneficiaries or to keep the legacy intact at the lowest cost.  We may seek advice from the financial advisers, groundskeepers, curators, and other staff who have cared for these assets in the past.  The answers will depend, however, on what we judge to be important, what we think we can afford to do, and how well we can agree among ourselves.  It’s all very complicated.

These are the issues facing the people who take responsibility for managing our roads  For more than a century the network was growing as the nation moved across the continent and trucks and cars began to compete with trains, wagons, and trams as primary means for moving from place to place.  Today we have more than 4 million miles of public roads in the 50 states, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, according to the U. S. Department of Transportation; about 2.7 million miles of these roads are paved. The strategic core of the network is the National Highway System (NHS), about 160,000 miles of paved roads judged to be important to the nation’s economy, defense, and mobility. Within the NHS, the Interstate Highway System, inaugurated by President Eisenhower in 1956, accounts for just over one-quarter of that, about 47,000 miles.  While the Interstates represent just over 1% of the nation’s road mileage, they carry about 25% of the nation’s traffic, measured by vehicle-miles of travel. (1)

We have reached a point where the demand for new roads nationwide has been largely satisfied. Additional capacity would be welcome in some places where population and jobs are growing, and this means adding lanes and upgrading standards on some routes. Substantial revisions of facilities will be wanted in other areas to enhance livability and improve safety, for example replacement of Seattle’s Alaska Way Viaduct with a tunnel. It may be that we will choose in coming years to make substantial new investments in rail transit and other forms of mass transportation, and this may necessitate alterations in communities’ roads.  But in much of the nation the primary task facing the people responsible for our roads will be managing our legacy assets.

When it comes to roads and other public works, the job of “asset management” has come to mean primarily looking after the facilities’ condition and maintenance to ensure they can provide the services for which they were constructed.  Other than re-purposing a freeway lane for use by high-occupancy vehicles only, dedicating road right-of-way for transit use or installation of fiber-optic cable, or converting abandoned rail lines to bicycle trails, road assets are not particularly fungible, that is, easily converted into other forms of assets. (Stock markets, for example, make it possible for owners to easily exchange shares for cash and vice versa.)  The nascent market in private-sector leasing and operation of toll roads (the Chicago Skyway, for example) and other facilities are a step toward encouraging infrastructure asset managers to think about how the value of  might be redeployed to increase public benefit, but we are still a long way from managing a road system as though it were a mutual fund.   In the meantime, asset preservation seems to be the primary objective, simply making sure that everything is still presentable and in working order when the family finally decides what to do.

(1) See http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_01_04.html,
http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/2008cpr/es.htm

Infrastructure asset management advancing in Canada

I spent part of last week at the annual gathering of the Canadian Network of Asset Managers (CNAM) in Burnaby, British Columbia, a part of the Vancouver metro area.  CNAM is a 2-year old association of government and private sector professionals dedicated to advancing asset management principles and practices for municipal infrastructure. As someone accustomed to the ways we have been doing infrastructure asset management—or more accurately, not doing it—in the United States, the meeting was an eye-opener! 

For a start, there seems to be a high level of Canadian interest in infrastructure and its management.  Some 250 people were there, coming from across that nation and many municipalities, large and small.  A glossy print periodical, ReNew Canada: The Infrastructure Renewal Magazine offers news and commentary, not simply vendors’ views of how the world should work.  Canada’s Public Sector Accounting Board’s standard 3150 on Tangible Capital Assets (requiring municipalities to report such assets on their financial statements) is the counterpart of the U. S. Government Accounting Standards Board’s Statement 34, but my conversations with other meeting attendees suggested there is a much broader interest in Canada in integrating asset management into financial planning and management rather than simply meeting minimum requirements with minimum effort.

Most exciting to me was hearing about examples of how specific communities are developing and using their asset management systems. The city of Vancouver, for example, has integrated their enterprise accounting system (they use SAP) with their infrastructure inventory and condition monitoring software (they use Hansen).  The city’s mayor Gregor Robertson, famously a campaigner for making Vancouver “the greenest city in the world by 2020,” is said to be firmly in favor of the asset-management program.  Calgary staff reported that their efforts are not far behind Vancouver’s.

Such efforts are not restricted to the larger cities.  The District of Lake Country, a 10,000 person municipality in British Columbia’s wine country, presented their 7-year history of developing and applying asset management principles. The responsible staff and consultants described how elected officials “got it” when maps of aging, at-risk facilities were shown and how they sorted through the issues of deciding public priorities for maintaining performance in delivery of infrastructure services. 

There is work to do, of course. Vancouver has had to add additional staff members to deal with the large volume of data being produced by their infrastructure management systems.  Smaller municipalities in mineral-rich areas of Saskatchewan and Alberta are just starting to develop management systems to keep up with growing demands for infrastructure services. I expect there will be lessons learned as more of these Canadian communities develop and apply asset management principles to their infrastructure.

Baltimore’s Sustainability Report

Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on April 16, 2011, stood up at the city’s Druid Hill Park Conservatory to announce the release of the 2010 Annual Sustainability Report.  This “yearly accountability tool to track Baltimore’s towards improving the economic, social, and environmental sustainability” was the city’s second such report, a product of the Baltimore Office of Sustainability.

Baltimore defines sustainability as “meeting the current environmental, social, and economic needs of our community without compromising the ability of future generations to meet these needs.”  This is deceptively similar to the often quoted formulation of the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission.  Our Common Future, the Commission’s 1987 report, asserted that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  The concept of needs was explained with particular priority of concern for the world’s poor.  Our ability to meet needs was represented as limited by our social organization and technology as well as environmental constraints.

Read literally, Baltimore’s idea of sustainability differs in two possibly controversial ways from conventional usage. First, development—meaning steady increase of living standards and economic activity—is not mentioned.  Second, the needs that future generations will want to meet seemingly are presumed not to differ from ours today.  But perhaps, for Baltimore’s sustainability assessors, development is a fundamental need.

Baltimore's sustainability goals

In any case, the report is structured around 29 specific goals in seven clusters aimed at enhancing the city’s sustainability. Some of the goals are quite specific (for example, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2015), but most are open ended.  And with the possible exception of supporting local business, every goal is crucially linked to the region’s public works infrastructure, although infrastructure is cited explicitly as a contributing resource for only about one-third.

Measuring Infrastructure Performance Is Complex

Performance is the execution of a task or fulfillment of a promise or claim. Musicians give a good performance when they play well, provide listeners with insights to the meaning and emotion behind the music, and entertain their audiences. Employees of large companies have annual performance reviews to reflect on how well they and their immediate supervisors think they are doing their jobs.
For civil infrastructure, performance has something to do with moving people and goods, supplying water, removing wastes, and keeping us comfortable. However, just as we might disagree about whether a singer has given a good performance, individual infrastructure users, companies that depend on infrastructure, government agencies that build it, people who live near the facilities, and others may have their own ideas about both what is the task or promise the infrastructure should fulfill and how well the job is being done. Because these several groups all play a role in shaping our infrastructure, determining how it is used, and taking advantage of the services (or disservices, as some might say) delivered, we often refer to them as stakeholders.
These stakeholders are a wonderfully diverse bunch and their ideas are dynamic. Trying to understanding what might be meant by “good performance” for infrastructure gets complicated. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s and ‘60s built the Buford Dam and others along the Chattahoochee River for power generation, flood control, and navigation purposes. Lake Lanier, a large reservoirs created near Atlanta, Georgia, became an important part of that growing region’s water supply as well as a popular recreation area. Downstream, where the river joins with others rolling south toward the Gulf of Mexico, oyster harvests in Apalachicola Bay depend on the freshwater flows. The states of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia have feuded for decades over the water management in the river basins. Since construction of the Buford Dam and Lake Lanier was completed in 1957, the tasks they are expected to perform have certainly shifted.
Sometimes stakeholders are very direct in stating the broader objectives they have in mind. Public works investments during Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” era, for example, were planned to give jobs to some of the legions of people left unemployed by the Great Depression as well as to provide the services of municipal buildings and libraries. Huge water projects built in the vast and largely empty southwestern areas of the United States were intended to enable settlement and consolidate the nation’s hold on land which (to quote Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Gift Outright) “was ours before we were the land’s.” The spending of public funds on new roads and water mains is routinely justified by expected gains in property values and subsequent tax revenues expected when newly accessible and serviced land is developed.
Sometimes our objectives are less overt. Some highways built in urban centers during the 1950s and ‘60s were viewed by their planners as instruments of slum clearance as well as transportation arteries. Public backlash gave rise to more general resistance to new construction and the term NIMBY—“Not in my back yard!”—that has since come to be recognized in many languages. A recent Saint Index© survey of U.S. attitudes about real estate projects and development found that our extended economic downturn may be softening opposition to new development in general, 74 percent of American adults still do not want it in their own community.
Sometimes we simply have too narrow a perspective. Vitruvius, the 1st Century BC Roman who gave us the 10-book De Architectura, wrote famously that our infrastructure should not only ward off hostile attack, glorify the gods, and enhance public convenience, but should do so with “strength, utility, grace.” A panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences to consider principles for improving the nation’s infrastructure (full disclosure: I served as the staff support and a primary report author-editor) asserted that we must manage our infrastructure to “… incorporate effective recognition of infrastructure as a multimodal and multipurpose system—a stream of services—as well as an armature of community development.” In other words, no infrastructure should be conceived of as doing only one thing.
In any case, whether the objectives, promises, or claims are narrowly or broadly conceived, explicitly or implicitly stated, the performance of infrastructure as a public investment must be judged by how well it serves the community. Measuring the return on investment will always be complicated.