Keeping the Infrastructure Bank Smart

There has been some momentum lately around the proposal to create “a national infrastructure bank,” first advanced in 2004 by the Commission on Public Infrastructure at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The proposal was covered extensively in an October New York Review of Books article by Everett Ehrlich and Felix G. Rohatyn. Rohatyn co-chaired the CSIS commission along with former Senator Warren Rudman.

Bob Herbert had a piece on the infrastructure bank in the New York Times at the start of the week. Reading it, one starts to get a sense of how the conversation over the bank might shape up — or not.

Predictably, Herbert gives most of the credit for the CSIS commission’s work to Senator Chris Dodd, even though the National Infrastructure Bank Act of 2007 (which came out of the commission’s work) was submitted by both Dodd and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Herbert rightly points out that such a bank could provide more than an infrastructure war-chest, tasked with raising money and investing in the nation’s infrastructure. It would also “bring a measure of coherence to the myriad projects that need to go forward.”

So essentially the bank would do for the United States what the World Bank does for developing nations, invest and advise.

For Herbert this is just “smart” governance — much needed after the era of Katrina and Iraq, in which we seem to have given up on smart and forsaken long-term planning for short-term payoffs.

That may be true. But the bank will only succeed and stay smart if discipline and transparency prevail. And if K street crowd can be kept from turning the entire project into a feeding trough.

The CSIS committe wants to guard against such a possibility. The bank as they conceived it would not be the Central Planning Committee that Herbert seems to envision, but, well, a bank that will make decisions about what constitutes a smart investment.

As Ehrlich and Rohatynthe write:

the bank would have no preconceived, overarching plan for the nation’s infrastructure. Proposals for infrastructure investment would still predominantly come from state and local governments. Our plan would preserve almost entirely the existing balance of power between federal, state, and local government, but would change dramatically the way priorities are set and projects funded. That is because it would proceed project-by-project, and dollar-by-dollar, to find the best use of federal resources.

Are we ready to do this right? For the bank to really do what’s “best” — and not what’s politically expedient — seems like it will require, or entail, nothing less than a reinvention of government.

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