Wide agreement exists that America's infrastructure needs a lot of repair. Agreement on how to fund those fixes? Not so wide.
How much public-private partnerships can fit into the funding mix was a big part of "Critical Status: How Financing Can Help Address America's Infrastructure Crisis," a session at NCSL's Legislative Summit.
(NCSL released a new public-private partnership toolkit for legislators during the Summit.)
Alex Herrgott, associate director for infrastructure for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, laid out the stakes and the administration's priorities for addressing them. Among the numbers: nearly 10 percent of the nation's bridges were considered structurally deficient last year. The nation's purified water systems waste 2.1 trillion gallons each year. U.S. airports will need $99.9 billion over the next five years. Ten percent of Americans lack access to broadband internet service.
The administration has proposed spending $1 trillion on infrastructure but has yet to announce the details.
"Everyone likes to jump to privatization and ownership of assets, but what we're talking about is transferring risks and actually doing the best things for taxpayers," he said. "It's time to have a new vision. There is a way to figure this out while protecting the equities of those who actually own the assets as well as those who use the assets."
Performing triage to keep assets within federal quality mandates is not cost-effective, he said.
"Many times we are just chasing our tails to fix potholes," he said. "It's hard for us to step back and look at the system as a whole and what we really want to build."
Streamlining the permitting process "might be one of the most important things this administration does," said Herrgott, adding that the permitting process is fragmented and the administration is looking to provide end-to-end solutions with a definite beginning and a definite end.
Herrgott cited the need for "a significant rural component, much of which will be beyond the scope of public-private partnerships so we have to be sympathetic and rational about that."
Deborah Brown of infrastructure consultants WSP, said she was "a cheerleader for mileage-based user fees," which she said was a fairer approach to funding transportation infrastructure.
Public-private partnerships are "a tool that can maximize efficiency to the public in certain circumstances," said Shant Boyajian of Nossaman LLP. He suggested states look at what other states have done and offered Virginia, the District of Columbia, Georgia and California as good examples.
Public-private partnerships remain a contentious issue.
"The big elephant in the room," said Brown, "is whether legislators will support public-private partnerships."