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Collaborative initiatives offer a clear path out of America’s newest recession

June 10, 2020 / MARY SCOTT NABERS

While Americans wait to see if Congress will pass an infrastructure bill, alternative funding and collaborative initiatives are becoming the norm. Even the recent announcement that the U.S. is now in a designated recession has not caused Congress to focus specifically on economic recovery. Economists, financial experts, industry leaders, and elected officials all know that funding large public projects stimulates the economy and creates jobs. They also know that throughout history, infrastructure reform has been a proven path to economic recovery.

Currently, private sector investors stand ready to fund infrastructure projects in America and local government leaders are moving forward to launch projects of all types. Soon, there may be little need for Congress to do anything. The opportunity to lead in this area may soon be usurped by visionary regional leaders and private sector partners.

Destruction brought on by climate change, the devastation resulting from COVID-19, cyber threats on public networks, lack of adequate broadband, and a desperate need for new sources of revenue – these are the problems that have forced visionary leaders to take action and not wait for Congress. Now, change is coming on strong, and that’s a very good thing!

Airports are not waiting to launch critical and long-overdue expansions. State leaders already are combating rising seas and finding ways to install broadband. Wastewater plants are being constructed or upgraded, and various transportation projects are being launched. Because local leaders lacked the luxury of waiting to see if Congress would endorse or partly fund infrastructure projects, they found alternative funding sources.

Congress could have, and should have, already passed an infrastructure bill, even if it only established guidelines or outlined best practices. The Canadian Council for Public Private Partnerships would have been a good model to follow. An endorsement or a statement of support from Congress related to public-private partnerships (P3s) would still be encouraging.

But, with or without encouragement, regional leaders throughout the country are working with industry, nonprofit organizations, academia, and investors to launch large infrastructure projects. And, as that happens, local economies benefit and jobs are created. Entire communities and numbers of citizens benefit from the good that emanates from public safety, quality of life, asset preservation, sustainability, and taxpayer relief.

But, to the surprise of no one, infrastructure projects are costly and many of them require a number of consolidated funding sources. Infrastructure projects also may be funded through a revenue repayment model that compensates private sector investors over a decade or two. Other projects are funded by bonds, grants, and federal programs such as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which incentivizes investment into designated Opportunity Zone regions of the country.

Additionally, funding is still available from federal programs that have been in existence for decades. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Community Development Block Grant programs all have funding that may be merged with other alternative funding sources.

Many state legislatures have allocated funding for ‘rainy days’, emergencies and/or ‘resiliency’ efforts. Special Districts also may be created by cities, a process that authorizes citizens to tax themselves for critical infrastructure projects. Finding numerous funding sources is not difficult and not a hurdle that stops infrastructure reform.

Two rather important issues, however, have slowed public acceptance of alternative funding and public-private partnerships – a lack of understanding by citizens about the cost and danger of not doing anything and the fact that the public at large does not completely understand the history or the success of P3s. Too many citizens view private sector investment into public projects as a new or risky concept, which is not the case. Collaborative initiatives have been responsible for the building of America’s infrastructure for more than 100 years. And, the public-private partnership model is common throughout the world and has been tested over many decades.

Here are but a few examples of visionary infrastructure initiatives happening now in America.

In Virginia, the Greene County Board of Supervisors has approved guidelines for establishing strategic public-private partnerships to develop numerous types of P3 projects in the county. This action will enable the Greene County School Board to enter P3s for the purpose of building educational facilities. Other possible projects likely will include landfills, drinking water production, and distribution systems. Projects also may include fire department facilities, education construction including stadiums, public safety buildings, utility and telecommunications initiatives, and broadband infrastructure.

The University of California (UC) has provided a 2019-2025 Capital Finance Plan (CFP) that represents $52 billion of capital that will be required by the campuses and its medical centers. The CFP outlines plans for proposed capital projects, P3s and the acquisition of real property. UC has found the P3 model to be efficient, especially for campus housing. The Irvine campus has a long history of partnering with third-party entities to advance its strategic goals.

The Yuma, Arizona City Council has approved a $51.4 million increase from last year for a Capital Improvement Program (CIP) budget. The city expects 45 percent of the costs to be obtained through grants, reimbursements, and P3s. The plan outlines 54 projects and funding plans of $20.3 million for projects in the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. The city also plans to augment funding with a federal grant and possibly private sector investment. It has scheduled a regional fiber optic infrastructure project for 2021 and has announced interest in a P3 engagement as the delivery model.

Florida’s Palm Beach Town Council recently approved $316,380 for a water supply feasibility study. An engineering firm will address the town’s need to explore different ways to provide residents potable water. A plan to determine how to meet future water demand is the objective. One option under consideration is to enter into a public-private-partnership to accomplish this objective.

Iowa State University is taking steps to become coal-free and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent over the next three years. A P3 is being considered for the operation of its utility system. The university’s Board of Regents this month gave approval for a planning process to begin.

The state of Nebraska is considering a public-private partnership to build a new 1,600-bed prison to deal with overcrowding and staffing issues. Cost of the new prison has been projected to be in the $200 million range or higher, and the state anticipates that a P3 will be the delivery method. The department announced that the project would potentially meet space needs for the next 100 years.

These projects offer just a sampling of what is happening throughout America. State and local leaders are moving forward and not waiting for guidance or encouragement. Instead, most have grabbed the reins of America’s race to the future, and started to address the country’s infrastructure needs. That’s comforting, because there is much to be done.

America’s global competitiveness truly hangs in the balance along with the well-being of millions of families impacted by unemployment. A recession is never good, but this one could be short. Here’s hoping the media, citizens at large, and others who understand the country’s critical infrastructure problems will find ways locally to step up and encourage other elected leaders to support this clear path out of the current recession.

Mary Scott Nabers is president and CEO of Strategic Partnerships Inc., a business development company specializing in government contracting and procurement consulting throughout the U.S. Her recently released book, Inside the Infrastructure Revolution: A Roadmap for Building America, is a handbook for contractors, investors and the public at large seeking to explore how public-private partnerships or joint ventures can help finance their infrastructure projects.