MuniLand

Sandy as an external shock

Estimates for the economic damage resulting from Superstorm Sandy are circulating from $15 to $50 billion in damage. No formal assessments have been completed yet, and it’s likely that these are “repair” estimates that reflect the cost of cleaning up and repairing infrastructure back to its former state. A repair bill is likely to be much lower than the cost of hardening and improving vital transport, energy and communication systems to withstand more storms like Sandy or worse. After Hurricane Katrina, architect Frederic Schwartz wrote:

The planning of cities in the face of disaster (natural and political) must reach beyond the band-aid of short-term recovery. Disaster offers a unique opportunity to rethink the planning and politics of our metro-regional areas…

I’m not advocating centralized economic planning, but instead the concept of having a clean slate to rethink a region’s needs and weaknesses. Much of New York’s infrastructure is over 50 years old and some parts of the subway system are over 100 years old. On top of these old and heavily worn systems have been laid new systems that support the regions modern economy.

A 2008 Critical National Infrastructure Report, performed by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack references the effects of an enormous external shock to the system:

The U.S. has developed more than most other nations as a modern society heavily dependent on electronics, telecommunications, energy, information networks, and a rich set of financial and transportation systems that leverage modern technology. This asymmetry is a source of substantial economic, industrial and societal advantages, but it creates vulnerabilities and critical interdependencies that are potentially disastrous to the United States.

America needs a smart grid

The latest item atop Congress’s list of stuff to haggle over is the transportation bill, legislation the Washington Post calls the “best bet for passage of a major jobs bill this year.” The threat of the expiration of authority to spend money from the Highway Trust Fund at the end of the month is motivating House and Senate leaders to reach a compromise in the coming days. Although there are certainly investments to be made in our transportation infrastructure that would contribute to America’s economic competitiveness, it’s a shame that our energy infrastructure has received such scant attention from lawmakers.

The national electrical grid is as important for economic growth, if not more so, than the national highway system or the privately owned router system that supports the Internet. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Department of Energy funded several demonstration programs for increasing electrical system integration and reducing peak loads on the electrical grid. These efforts are commonly known as the “smart grid,” and this is where Congress needs to turn its attention.

Fort Collins, Colorado was chosen for a public-private smart grid project supported with DOE funding. Called FortZED, the project integrates five public and private institutions into a web that shares excess electrical generation during peak load periods. Some facilities, like the University of Colorado campus, have enormous backup diesel generators that can be powered up to add electricity to the system during times of peak demand. A local brewery and city facility have large solar-cell arrays that can also feed electricity back into the system.

Who will pay for new infrastructure spending?

Infrastructure is an important contributor to full employment, and an efficient network of roads, mass transit and water systems is critical for economic vitality. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report card showing that the U.S. needed to spend $2 trillion over a five-year period for its infrastructure to be upgraded to “good.” That’s about $1.4 trillion more than the U.S. spent on capital improvements to infrastructure over the five-year period from 2003 to 2007. Where could this new funding come from?

According to a 2010 Congressional Budget Office report, state and local governments accounted for about 60 percent of infrastructure spending and 90 percent of the cost of maintaining transportation and water infrastructure nationally. The federal government provided the remaining funds as well as most of the funding for the nation’s air traffic control system. The CBO breaks down how the money was spent:

Spending on highways at all levels of government accounted for 43 percent of expenditures for transportation and water infrastructure in 2007. Expenditures on water supply and wastewater treatment systems accounted for 28 percent of spending; aviation, mass transit and rail made up 23 percent; and the remaining categories of water transportation and water resources accounted for 5 percent.

President Obama, the Ricketts family and Wrigley Field

Is the Ricketts family of Chicago bipolar? The patriarch, billionaire and Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts, blasted onto the national stage yesterday, when the New York Times reported that his super PAC considered running an ad campaign entitled “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good.” His super PAC, the Ending Spending Action Fund, also lobbies against excessive federal spending and special-interest earmarks.

Meanwhile Ricketts’s son Tom, the general chairman of the Cubs, has been lobbying Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and President Obama’s former chief of staff, for $150 million in tax revenues to renovate Wrigley Field, the home of his family’s Major League Baseball team. The irony of Joe Ricketts blasting the president for special-interest spending while his son grovels for taxpayer support to renovate his baseball stadium is enormous. The Ricketts family needs to meet around their kitchen table and get this matter worked out, because it makes both the father and son look clueless.

Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business has the local scoop:

Did the Ricketts family just knee-cap its own plan to rebuild Wrigley Field with a healthy dose of Chicago taxpayer cash?

Infrastructure financing and the federal government

There is a general consensus that America needs both new infrastructure and more jobs. Where there’s disagreement is over what role the federal government should play in providing the necessary funding to jump-start new projects. In a recent webinar, Standard & Poor’s laid out the current types of financing available for surface transporation projects (page 3):

• General Obligation Bonds (Appropriation debt)
• Sales Tax Revenue Bonds
• Gas Tax Revenue Bonds
• Toll Revenue Bonds
• Federal Grant-Secured Obligations (GANs/GARVEEs)
Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loans
• Public Private Partnerships (P3)

The top five categories in the list above are types of municipal bonds, meaning that they require a local or state government to take on debt to fund infrastructure. At the level of federal financing, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration gives out TIFIA loans to public-and-private infrastructure projects. For example, the Macquarie-owned public-private partnerships that are building the Midtown Tunnel in the Norfolk and Hampton Bays area of Virginia and the FasTracks rail project in Denver are using federal TIFIA loans in the funding pool.

How American municipalities can learn from Parisian mistakes

Across the nation cash-strapped municipalities are considering the sale of their public-utility systems. These moves are intended to raise cash and rid the municipalities of expensive liabilities such as debt service and pension obligations. But officials considering this approach might do well to look to France and other nations that are rapidly moving in the opposite direction with a “remunicipalization” of their utility systems. In 2010, Paris, in the best known case of remunicipalization, ended contracts with the world’s two biggest water service companies, Suez and Veolia, bringing an end to their 100-year private duopoly. The reversal of a century-old practice in Paris was an acceleration of an international movement away from private control. Per remunicipalisation.org:

In the 1990s many countries privatised their water and sanitation services, particularly in the [hemispheric] South, as a result of strong pressure from neoliberal mindset governments and international financial institutions, to ‘open’ up national services.

The promises that privatisation would improve the provision of drinking and wastewater services soon faltered. Many of the privatised operations quickly began to show weaknesses as they missed targets for expanding and upgrading networks, introduced excessive tariff increases alongside connection fees which were unaffordable for low-income families. Management activities were not transparent and accountable. As a result numerous contracts with private operators were terminated often following popular unrest. Many cities, regions and even countries have chosen to close the book on water privatisation and instead embarked on remunicipalisation or renationalisation of water delivery

Boston funds publicly, while Chicago goes private

Two major American cities are embarking on large capital programs, but in very different ways. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has a $1.8 billion, five-year plan that he will fund with municipal bonds, while Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is trying to push a $7 billion plan, which will be paid for by private investors, through the city council. It would be hard to find to two more dissimilar approaches to rebuilding America’s urban infrastructure or two more different lists of who will reap the monetary benefit of the improvements.

Boston approaches its infrastructure needs with a rolling five-year schedule of projects that is updated on an annual basis. This allows for more controlled expensing and planning. In contrast, Chicago’s Emanuel announced his infrastructure privatization plan in January with very few details and buy-in only from the private investors who will benefit from their involvement. The Chicago proposal gives control of infrastructure decisions to a panel of four private citizens and one city council member with no ability for the city council to have oversight on projects and contracts. Chicago has a terrible history of leaving taxpayer money on the table in its privatization efforts. In 2008 the city’s parking meters were leased out to private investors for a tiny sum:

Chicago drivers will pay a Morgan Stanley-led partnership at least $11.6 billion to park at city meters over the next 75 years, 10 times what Mayor Richard Daley got when he leased the system to investors in 2008.

The Virginia tunnel goldmine

The battle to privatize America’s public assets had a big win when the Newport News Daily Press reported:

The governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell announced Monday that a deal with private construction consortium Elizabeth River Crossings to build a new Midtown Tunnel tube; refurbish the existing facility along with the Downtown Tunnel; and expand the Martin Luther King Freeway has reached a financial close.

The project, which is now owned by Australian infrastructure company Macquarie, will add another tunnel under the Elizabeth River to relieve congestion in the Norfolk and Hampton Roads area. Getting control of the project will bring in rich rewards for Macquarie and its construction partner Skanska. For an equity investment of $208 million, Macquarie stands to realize over $5 billion in cash flow over the 58-year concession after repayment of bonds, loans and mandated capital expenditures.

Denver’s botched FasTracks privatization

Reuters ran a piece yesterday that caught my eye: “Macquarie eyes $2 billion North American infrastructure fund: sources.” According to the article, Macquarie, the Australian company active in infrastructure privatization, wanted to leverage its prior American success as it begins to raise funds:

Macquarie has also proved successful in bidding for the few new assets on the market. It was behind the largest U.S. infrastructure deals of the last two years – a $2.1 billion project to build and operate commuter rail lines to Denver International Airport and a $1.7 billion upgrade of a tunnel between the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth in Virginia.

The privatization of American infrastructure has become a hot topic, despite the lack of notable success stories. The Macquarie project building and operating commuter rail lines to Denver International Airport illustrates the costs associated with this approach. The project is not doing very well: Because of cost overruns, its budget was recently revised upward, to $7.8 billion.

Fracking’s externalities

Fracking is under increased scrutiny in the U.S. and in Australia, in the state of New South Wales. Both nations have undertaken studies to examine the effect of fracking on groundwater supplies. But there are other potential socialized costs that need to be included in these public studies, including the possible cost of wastewater treatment plants, damage to local roads, air and water pollution and the linkages to earthquakes. The costs of these possible side effects to local communities may exceed the gains they’ll receive from extraction royalties and increased tax revenues. We need some accounting.

In the U.S. the Environmental Protection Agency has begun a study on fracking and water supplies, and it released a status report in December 2011. The EPA anticipates a first round of results by the end of 2012 and a final report to be released in 2014. The agency has conducted literature reviews, requested data from manufacturers of fracking fluids and scheduled case studies with landowners. It also released a startling preliminary report on possible groundwater contamination in Wyoming.  From USA Today:

The EPA found that compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath Pavillion, a small community in central Wyoming where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals. Health officials last year advised them not to drink their water after the EPA found low levels [of] hydrocarbons in their wells.

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