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Lessons from Utilities for Trump’s Infrastructure Plan

Transportation agencies need to be prepared before inviting private investment in infrastructure.

Last month President Trump released his plan to “rebuild our Nation’s crumbling infrastructure.” While it is not uncommon to hear hyperbole from the President, in this case, crumbling isn’t too much of a stretch. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the nation’s infrastructure a failing grade of “D+” in its latest report card.

Instead of emphasizing direct federal investment in infrastructure, the President’s plan would fund incentives to encourage state and local governments, and the private sector, to invest. Two aspects of the plan would encourage state and local governments to strike deals with private investors. Figuring out how to structure agreements, is up to these entities.

First, the plan proposes to distribute $100 billion in grants to state and local governments for projects that will be selected on a competitive basis. Analysts believe the proposed selection criteria emphasize outside funding in a way that favors the private sector. Second, the plan would expand the private sector’s use of tax-exempt bonds known as private activity bonds. This would make it cheaper for private sector companies to borrow money for publicly-oriented projects, again making the private sector a more attractive partner.

Thrusting the private sector into public infrastructure building is controversial. Proponents say private funding will speed up project development and lower costs. They highlight successes in Australia, Britain and Canada. Skeptics, on the other hand, point to the misalignment between public and private objectives. For example, a privately developed toll road in southern California included a non-compete clause that prevented the government from developing public transit projects along the corridor. The government eventually bought out the private owner to allow the public transit projects to proceed.

The Goethals Bridge between New Jersey and New York. The 1920s bridge (foreground) is being demolished and replaced with a privately developed bridge (behind). SOURCE.

Yet, apart from a few literal examples, including the Goethals bridge between New Jersey and New York, symbolic bridge building between public and private investment in US transportation infrastructure is still rare. These partnerships, commonly referred to as public-private partnerships, accounted for less than one percent of total spending in 2013. The Trump infrastructure plan could significantly change this.

What should state and local governments do to prepare for the opportunities and challenges that possible public-private partnerships will bring? For one, they can take a look at electricity, where the private sector has long been the dominant source of investment in publicly needed infrastructure.

Higher Risks and Higher Returns

Electric utilities aren’t a perfect analogy, but they raise some of the key challenges that are inherent to having private companies make investments for the public good. One of the toughest challenges is how to share risks and rewards between private investors and the public.

Utilities regulators accomplish this through rate of return regulation, whereby the regulator explicitly sets a return that a utility’s investors receive. State government might use other approaches when negotiating a public-private partnership, but will still need to confront how to appropriately reward private investors.

Medium voltage power line in California. SOURCE.

Electric utility investors receive attractive returns by some measures. Data collected by S&P Global Market Intelligence show the median return on capital authorized by state utility regulators in 2017 was 7.8%. That is more than 5% greater than the return received by holders of 10-year government treasury bonds. Of course it is not static, but over the last 15 years the spread between median authorized returns for utilities and 10-year government yields has fluctuated between 4 and 6%.

The 7.8% rate of return authorized in 2017 is actually based on two components, the return on debt and the return on equity. The return on debt is quite similar to the government yield rate, but the median return on equity was much higher – 9.6% in 2017. Not a bad deal.

Generating a Good Return for the Public

The large gap between private returns on equity and government yields in electricity gives rise to the argument that the public is getting ripped off by private companies. It’s argued that the government should undertake investments itself because government can borrow money for less.

However, comparing rates of return doesn’t tell the whole story. When the government fully funds an infrastructure project, taxpayers-at-large are left with an array of risks – cost overruns, delays, unexpected maintenance. These potential costs may not be explicitly recognized at the time an investment decision is made, but should be.

Arriving at an appropriate rate of return requires a careful, and difficult, balancing of risks and rewards. Set returns too low, and private investors don’t invest. Set it too high, and private investors walk away with excess profits. Getting this task right is something utility regulators have struggled with for over a century. Debates over the best rate of return estimation method rage on in regulatory commissions and the courts. Every rate of return regulatory proceeding is a battle between dueling expert witnesses. Commissions struggle to maintain the expertise necessary to challenge arguments put forward by profit-motivated utilities.

The Edmund G. “Pat” Brown State Office Building, San Francisco. Home of the California Public Utilities Commission. SOURCE.

The Trump infrastructure plan is encouraging state and local transportation agencies to enter this morass. Perhaps the opportunities are worth the struggle, but if state and local transportation agencies are going to invite the private sector to enter the transportation sector in a big way, they need to be prepared. Agencies will need to increase their proficiency in risk assessment, finance and negotiations before going head-to-head with private investors. Otherwise the nation’s crumbling infrastructure could be replaced by crumbling public finances.

8 thoughts on “Lessons from Utilities for Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Leave a comment

  1. Most large scale public investment currently is private turnkey construction. Private firms compete for these contracts which are funded through public taxes, fees, tolls and rates managed by public agencies. We don’t have a large construction labor force employed by government agencies. The operating costs for most of these projects and facilities are relatively small compared to the capital costs. I don’t see how turning over the interface with citizens and consumers from a government that is relatively accountable to a private corporation that is only remotely accountable when it is a monopoly is any sort of gain in either efficiency or service quality. More mythology about how “markets” work.

  2. The statement below ignores the fact that infrastructure projects funded purely by the private sector, especially in industries that don’t fit the perfectly competitive model, run exactly the same risks. Regulatory structures (including but not limited to cost reviews) do not solve this problem, especially when the regulators are captured by magical thinking (e.g., persistent, unexplained, and unobservable anomalous capital markets justify excessively high federal ROEs). The result of purely private sector funding in these cases will be cost overruns seeking those ROEs combined with no regulatory oversight of the costs actually incurred.

    “When the government fully funds an infrastructure project, taxpayers-at-large are left with an array of risks – cost overruns, delays, unexpected maintenance. These potential costs may not be explicitly recognized at the time an investment decision is made, but should be.”

  3. Andy
    So the CPUC can regulate private companies investing in infrastructure that benefits the public at large. The CPUC can conduct a reasonableness review of the overall expenditure and allocate the risk of cost overruns to shareholders. In addition, as you point out, the CPUC can set a ROE for the shareholders to attract the capital needed for these investments. But the ratepayer wallet is not infinite and there are lots of competing infrastructure needs. The CPUC started a process to prioritize investments based on safety risks, having the higher safety priority items get funding first. I would be curious to hear what your thoughts are on the overall infrastructure need is vs. the budget allocated. Have set the overall budget correctly? Since the wallet is not infinite, we want to get the best bang for the buck out of it possible, but I am curious did we set the overall target correctly?

  4. Thanks for this very thoughtful analysis. But alas, we already have crumbling (if not indeed quite crumbled) public finance for transportation infrastructure. But that doesn’t mean your warning is moot: unfortunately it is indeed possible to make matters worse. That’s a serious risk under the circumstances.

    Seems like a major effort is needed to re-educate the public about the need for, and high value of, public investments in public goods.

  5. U.S. public utility regulation originated in the transportation sector, and every state commission was once a railroad commission (the Texas RRC still stands). For capital-intensive enterprises, economic regulation mitigates risk, protecting investor interests as much as those of ratepayers. But privatization is not the same as competition, and the introduction of profit motive to monopolies for essential services must be checked. An alternative to investor-ownership is performance-based contracting, but (as you suggest) this requires technical capacity.

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