Want infrastructure? Washington can help by getting out of the way

Politicians in Washington are struggling to build bridges across the political aisle. But they could improve the political climate if they’d focus on the actual building (and repairing) of bridges.

According to a report from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, there are more than 50,000 “structurally deficient” bridges in America. Millions of people cross them each day. Repairing these bridges, and the rest of the country’s troubled infrastructure, should be the top priority for the federal government this year.

Indeed, lawmakers are already saying they want to work together on this.

“Democrats agree with the president: America’s physical infrastructure is the backbone of our economy, and we have fallen behind,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer wrote in the Washington Post. “If we do not quickly repair and modernize our infrastructure, we risk ceding the next century of global economic leadership to China or India.”

President Trump agrees. He recently met with House Speaker Paul Ryan to discuss what the White House called, “the overwhelming need to improve our Nation’s infrastructure.”

There are some guidelines that should shape the debate over infrastructure. The first key is working together. That means congressional Democrats and Republicans will need to cooperate. But it means much more than that.

To drive successful infrastructure expansion, Washington needs to encourage the growth of public-private partnerships (P3’s) to deliver more private sector investment for major projects. It can do that by promoting a regulatory and tax environment for investment that attracts dollars and technology from the private sector.

In the real estate industry, infrastructure encourages development. People are more likely to develop property, start businesses and choose to live where the roads, bridges, ports and power grid are dependable.

Policymakers also need to make more land available for development. A leaked administration infrastructure draft cited reform of the federal brownfield program to encourage development. According to that document, the administration wants to make it easier for state and local governments to permit brownfield development.

This makes sense. There are an estimated 500,000 brownfield sites in the United States, many of them in heavily populated areas. As much as $2 trillion of real estate may be undervalued due to the presence or possibility of contamination. Developing some of this property would pay big dividends. On average, every dollar invested through the EPA’s program leverages an additional $16 used for assessment and cleanup of brownfields. It’s an example of a small federal investment delivering an outsize return.

The federal government also needs to continue slashing the red tape that often holds back projects.

The administration can take steps to do this even without Congress. As Trump aide Alexander Herrgott explained at a recent conference, “Regardless of what happens with the legislative package, I think one of the most important things this administration can do is take permit delivery times from what is now an average of 4.7 years down to two years.” That would be an excellent start to speed up projects.

But lawmakers need to do their part as well. Congress should make it easier to obtain permits to build new infrastructure by defining the top regulatory obstacles that need to be eliminated and other major challenges that deter investment. Lawmakers need to streamline the permitting and approval processes to improve project delivery systems and reduce costs.

The federal government also needs to reassure private investors that it will be a good partner. It needs to set clear rules that private entities can comply with, and ensure that those rules stay in place throughout the lifespan of a project. If the rules change every election cycle, few will want to partner with the federal government.

In the real estate industry, infrastructure encourages development. People are more likely to develop property, start businesses and choose to live where the roads, bridges, ports and power grid are dependable.

That will require government investment, this year and for years to come. But if Washington is willing to make the initial investments, Americans can build the world’s best infrastructure, and keep the country growing for decades to come.

Thomas J. Bisacquino is President and CEO of NAIOP, the commercial real estate trade association with more than 19,000 members nationwide.