The case for a Fast-Track Infrastructure Board

Christopher H. Lee Founder, Highstar Capital
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Recognizing the critical importance of revitalizing America’s decaying infrastructure in creating jobs and jump-starting our economy, the Obama administration recently announced the selection of 14 infrastructure projects it wants to expedite.

Of course, weeks earlier the president’s own Jobs Council published a fact sheet noting that there are currently 351 large infrastructure projects delayed by permitting and red tape. Those 351 large projects comprise $577 billion in new infrastructure investments, which could translate into upwards of 10 million jobs according to a University of Massachusetts/Alliance for American Manufacturing study.

But our Byzantine bureaucratic, regulatory and legal maze is preventing this critically needed investment in our future from happening any time soon. So while hundreds of projects languish in red tape, only 14 have been cleared for an “expedited review process.” Even this process is targeted for “only 18 months.” Eighteen months is a long time to wait for a job, particularly if you’ve already been out of one for a year or more.

The administration also knows full well that these review processes are not even under the control of the federal government — state and local governments need to chime in as well.

So the administration admits, despite its best intentions, it could still take significantly more time to get just these 14 projects moving. The problem is that we don’t have more time. According to a recent Washington Post article, the U.S. population is forecast to grow by 100 million by 2050, and every day that passes is a day we need to be increasing our capacity to house and transport a growing America. Our country’s infrastructure is falling apart, and we need people in the jobs that will fix it.

This is why I propose that President Obama and Congress create a Fast-Track Infrastructure Board, which would serve to streamline the infrastructure project approval processes on a much greater and more efficient scale. This federal authority would be a non-partisan entity led by infrastructure experts and elected officials who would receive input from all stakeholders. While setting basic standards for safety and environmental sustainability, an empowered Fast-Track Infrastructure Board would protect the interests of stakeholders, without allowing for political “pork” and other special interests to belabor the process of authorizing critical infrastructure projects.

And best of all, the Fast-Track Infrastructure Board would have license to make definitive, up-or-down decisions within 120 days, giving businesses, investors and communities the certainty they need to move forward.

For a while there was talk of stimulating the economy and job growth with more shovel-ready projects, until we realized that there aren’t any shovel-ready projects. Even the Ohio River Bridge highlighted by the president a few weeks ago when he used it as a backdrop during a stump speech for his jobs bill isn’t shovel-ready. Construction can’t even begin for another three years. Keeping in mind that we don’t have three years, that we need the jobs and the infrastructure improvements now, one can hopefully see how the employment of a fast-tracking mechanism can make the difference we need. Our country — and the more than one million unemployed construction workers nationwide — cannot afford to wait any longer for infrastructure development we needed yesterday, let alone for tomorrow. We need something far bolder, and we need it now.

This one-at-a-time review process — or in this case, 14 projects at a time, however well-intentioned the administration may be on this — is not going to even scratch the surface of our vast need for infrastructure improvement. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers released its infrastructure report card, giving aviation and transit a D, bridges a C, roads a D- and transit a D. The overall grade for America’s infrastructure was a D, and the ASCE estimated that repairing the nation’s infrastructure would cost $2.2 trillion over the next five years. We need to do better.

To make the kind of progress we desperately need in overhauling America’s infrastructure, Washington needs to commit to economic recovery and make infrastructure fast-tracking a priority. We have the expertise to make this work. Now, all we need is a credible and empowered mechanism to do so.

Christopher H. Lee is the founder and managing partner of Highstar Capital, an independent, fourth-generation infrastructure fund manager with over $4 billion of assets under management. Highstar seeks to make value-added, operationally focused investments in energy, transportation and environmental services infrastructure businesses and assets, principally in North America and Europe.