Category Archives: Infrastructure

High-speed rail: is this year different?

Many U.S. cities are racing to develop high speed rail systems that shorten commute times and develop the economy for residents. These trains are able to reach speeds over 124 mph, sometimes even as high as 374 mph as in the case of Japan’s record-breaking trains. Despite this potential, American cities haven’t quite had the success of other countries. In 2009, the Obama administration awarded almost a billion dollars of stimulus money to Wisconsin to build a high-speed rail line connection between Milwaukee and Madison, and possibly to the Twin Cities, but that project was derailed. Now, the Trump administration has plans to support a high-speed rail project in Texas. Given so many failed attempts in the U.S., it’s fair to ask if this time is different. And if it is, will high-speed rail bring the benefits that proponents claim it to have?

The argument for building high-speed rail lines usually entails promises of faster trips, better connections between major cities, and economic growth as a result. It almost seems like a no-brainer – why would any city not want to pursue something like this? The answer, like with most public policy questions, depends on the costs, and whether the benefits actually realize.

In a forthcoming paper for the Mercatus Center, transportation scholar Kenneth Button explores these questions by studying the high-speed rail experiences of Spain, Japan, and China; the countries with the three largest systems (measured by network length). Although there are benefits to these rail systems, Button cautions against focusing too narrowly on them as models, primarily because what works in one area can’t necessarily be easily replicated in another.

Most major systems in other countries have been the result of large public investment and built with each area’s unique geography and political environment kept in mind. Taking their approaches and trying to apply them to American cities not only ignores how these factors can differ, but also how much costs can differ. For example, the average infrastructure unit price of high-speed rail in Europe is between $17 and $24 million per mile and the estimated cost for proposals in California is conservatively estimated at $35 million per mile.

The cost side of the equation is often overlooked, and more attention is given to the benefit side. Button explains that the main potential benefit – generating economic growth – doesn’t always live up to expectations. The realized growth effects are usually minimal, and sometimes even negative. Despite this, proponents of high-speed rail oversell them. The process of thinking through high-speed rail as a sound public investment is often short-lived.

The goal is to generate new economic activity, not merely replace or divert it from elsewhere. In Japan, for example, only six percent of the traffic on the Sanyo Shinkansen line was newly generated, while 55 percent came from other rail lines, 23 percent from air, and 16 percent from inter-city bus. In China, after the Nanguang and Guiguang lines began operating in 2014, a World Bank survey found that many of the passengers would have made the journey along these commutes through some other form of transportation if the high-speed rail option wasn’t there. The passengers who chose this new transport method surely benefited from shorter travel times, but this should not be confused with net growth across the economy.

Even if diverted away from other transport modes, the amount of high-speed rail traffic Japan and China have generated is commendable. Spain’s system, however, has not been as successful. Its network has only generated about 5 percent of Japan’s passenger volume. A line between Perpignan, France and Figueres, Spain that began services in 2009 severely fell short of projected traffic. Originally, it was expected to run 19,000 trains per year, but has only reached 800 trains by 2015.

There is also evidence that high speed rail systems poorly re-distribute activity geographically. This is especially concerning given the fact that projects are often sold on a promise of promoting regional equity and reducing congestion in over-heating areas. You can plan a track between well-developed and less-developed regions, but this does not guarantee that growth for both will follow. The Shinkansen system delivers much of Japan’s workforce to Tokyo, for example, but does not spread much employment away from the capital. In fact, faster growth happened where it was already expected, even before the high-speed rail was planned or built. Additionally, the Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansan line in particular has strengthened the relative economic position of Tokyo and Osaka while weakening those of cities not served.

Passenger volume and line access are not – and should not be – the only metrics of success. Academics have exhibited a fair amount of skepticism regarding high-speed rail’s ability to meet other objectives. When it comes to investment value, many cases have resulted in much lower returns than expected. A recent, extreme example of this is California’s bullet train that is 50 percent over its planned budget; not to mention being seven years behind in its building schedule.

The project in California has been deemed a lost cause by many, but other projects have gained more momentum in the past year. North American High Speed Rail Group has proposed a rail line between Rochester and the Twin Cities, and if it gets approval from city officials, it plans to finance entirely with private money. The main drawback of the project is that it would require the use of eminent domain to take the property of existing businesses that are in the way of the planned line path. Private companies trying to use eminent domain to get past a roadblock like this often do so claiming that it is for the “public benefit.” Given that many residents have resisted the North American High Speed Rail Group’s plans, trying to force the use of eminent domain would likely only destroy value; reallocating property from a higher-value to a lower-value use.

Past Mercatus research has found that using eminent domain powers for redevelopment purposes – i.e. by taking from one private company and giving to another – can cause the tax base to shrink as a result of decreases in private investment. Or in other words, when entrepreneurs see that the projects that they invest in could easily be taken if another business owner makes the case to city officials, it would in turn discourage future investors from moving into the same area. This ironically discourages development and the government’s revenues suffer as a result.

Florida’s Brightline might have found a way around this. Instead of trying to take the property of other businesses and homes in its way, the company has raised money to re-purpose existing tracks already between Miami and West Palm Beach. If implemented successfully, this will be the first privately run and operated rail service launched in the U.S. in over 100 years. And it doesn’t require using eminent domain or the use of taxpayer dollars to jump-start that, like any investment, has risk of being a failure; factors that reduce the cost side of the equation from the public’s perspective.

Which brings us back to the Houston-to-Dallas line that Trump appears to be getting behind. How does that plan stack up to these other projects? For one, it would require eminent domain to take from rural landowners in order to build a line that would primarily benefit city residents. Federal intervention would require picking a winner and loser at the offset. Additionally, there is no guarantee that building of the line would bring about the economic development that many proponents promise. Button’s new paper suggests that it’s fair to be skeptical.

I’m not making the argument that high-speed rail in America should be abandoned altogether. Progress in Florida demonstrates that maybe in the right conditions and with the right timing, it could be cost-effective. The authors of a 2013 study echo this by writing:

“In the end, HSR’s effect on economic and urban development can be characterized as analogous to a fertilizer’s effect on crop growth: it is one ingredient that could stimulate economic growth, but other ingredients must be present.”

For cities that can’t seem to mix up the right ingredients, they can look to other options for reaching the same goals. In fact, a review of the economic literature finds that investing in road infrastructure is a much better investment than other transportation methods like airports, railways, or ports. Or like I’ve discussed previously, being more welcoming to new technologies like driver-less cars has the potential to both reduce congestion and generate significant economic gains.

Privatizing Water Facilities Can Help Cash-Strapped Municipalities

In my latest Forbes piece I discuss water privatization in the U.S. and why it is often a good idea.

“A public-private partnership has several benefits versus a completely public system. First, private firms often operate in many different jurisdictions, which means they have more experience and are able to institute best practices based on their accumulated knowledge.

Second, there is more oversight. The firm has an incentive to provide the specified water quality in order to maintain their business with the city and to avoid being sued for breach of contract. Local government officials can easily monitor the firm since they only need to focus on water quality and availability. If either the government or the firm fail to do their job, the other entity can alert residents.

Third, private companies are often better situated to maintain the infrastructure than public ownership, and public choice analysis helps explain why. Under complete government ownership, rate increases are a political decision rather than a business decision. There is a strong incentive for government officials to keep rates low, especially during election years, since rate increases rarely lead to votes.

Moreover, it’s difficult for politicians to commit to making necessary infrastructure improvements since the deterioration of a city’s water infrastructure is a long process that’s hard for the average voter to notice. A politician can get more votes by allocating tax dollars to conspicuous things like additional policemen or shiny, new fire trucks—it’s hard to trot out a new water main at a campaign rally.”

Thinking like an Economist Means Thinking about Tradeoffs

This week, I’ve written two articles about different types of tradeoffs that economists think about when they evaluate the likely effectiveness of proposed public policies. One type of tradeoff relates to the costs that consumers and businesses incur in exchange for the benefits policies will achieve, while a second type of tradeoff involves countervailing risks that sometimes increase as policies aim to reduce other risks.

An example of the first type of tradeoff, involving benefits and costs, comes from energy efficiency regulations for appliances. These regulations do produce some benefits involving reduced emissions, but entire classes of very important costs are routinely overlooked by regulatory agencies. When an agency doesn’t count what consumers give up in exchange for the good things policies produce, there is a greater chance people will be made worse off by a policy. That’s bad news.

Here is a relevant portion of an op-ed I wrote published in the Washington Times:

The Department of Energy sets energy conservation standards that limit the amount of electricity that can be used by home appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners. These sweeping regulations affect nearly every American consumer. The department claims its rules address an imminent problem — environmental degradation — and argues that its conservation rules produce two main benefits: First, more energy-efficient appliances use less energy, so we all release fewer emissions into the atmosphere. Second, by using less energy, consumers may save money over time on monthly utility bills.

Sounds like a win-win situation, right? Not so fast.

We haven’t considered the costs of these regulations. Consumers care about their utility bills and the environment, but they also care about how well a product works, its appearance, whether the product comes with or without a warranty, the purchase price, and countless other things. When product attributes change as a result of regulations, these are costs to consumers. But the costs are ignored by regulators at the Energy Department. Regulators do consider some costs, like how much more appliance makers will have to pay when they are forced to comply with new rules, but the costs to consumers — whom we should care most about — are systematically overlooked.

In a second article, published in US News and World Report, I show how tradeoffs can involve more than just benefits and costs (which are valued in monetary terms). Tradeoffs can also involve risks. An example of a risk tradeoff comes from proposed legislation in New Jersey that targets distracted driving. The bill would ban drivers from engaging in “any” activity unrelated to driving that might interfere with the safe operation of a vehicle in the state. Some have said the bill’s language is so expansive that drinking a cup of coffee while driving would be banned.

The distracted driving bill has the potential to create what economists call “risk tradeoffs,” which occur when the mitigation of one risk simultaneously increases the risk of another. This bill addresses an all-too-real danger, but any law that prevents people from drinking coffee behind the wheel is going to increase at least one other risk: the risk created by drowsy drivers on the roads.

With fewer people drinking coffee on the roads, that means more sleepy truck drivers hauling sixteen wheelers at 2am. Is that a risk worth bearing in exchange for fewer distracted drivers? That’s a difficult question that will involve careful analysis to answer.

Risk tradeoffs are actually pretty ubiquitous, and involve far more than just Jersey drivers.

One of the most common ways new policies create risk tradeoffs is through “substitution effects.” For example, when a pesticide is banned, farmers usually switch to a different pesticide instead. The new chemical may be safer than the banned one, but it could also be more dangerous. Sometimes risks are simply shifted from one group of people to another. A new pesticide might reduce the risk from eating residue left on fruit in the supermarket, but at the same time, it could create new risks for farmers who work among the sprayed fruit.

Considering these kinds of tradeoffs—benefit/cost and risk/risk—is what rational decision making is all about. Any good economists is trained to think about these things when evaluating proposed policies. If legislators and regulators are going to use the resources we entrust them with wisely, we should all demand they think like economists too.

Local governments reluctant to issue new debt despite low interest rates

The Wall Street Journal reports that despite historically low interest rates municipal governments and voters don’t have the appetite for new debt. Municipal bond issuances have dropped to 20-year lows (1.6 percent) as governments pass on infrastructure improvements. There are a few reasons for that: weak tax revenues, fewer federal dollars, and competing budgetary pressures. As the article notes,

“Many struggling legislatures and city halls are instead focusing on underfunded employee pensions and rising Medicaid costs. Some cash-strapped areas, such as Puerto Rico and the city of Chicago, face high annual debt payments.”

The pressures governments face due to rising employee benefits is likely to continue. The low interest rate environment has already had a negative effect on public pensions. In pursuit of higher yields, investors have taken on more investment risk leaving plans open to market volatility. At the same time investments in bonds have not yielded much. WSJ reporter Timothy Martin writes that public pension returns are, “expected to drop to the lowest levels ever recorded,” with a 20-year annualized return of 7.4 percent for 2016.

The end result of this slide is to put pressure on municipal and state budgets to make up the difference, sometimes with significant tradeoffs.

The key problem for pensions is “baked into the cake,” by use of improper discounting. Linking the present value of guaranteed liabilities to the expected return on risky investments produces a distortion in how benefits are measured and funded. Public sector pensions got away with it during the market boom years. But in this market and bond environment an arcane actuarial assumption over how to select discount rates shows its centrality to the fiscal stability of governments and the pension plans they provide.

Does Tax Increment Financing (TIF) generate economic development?

Tax increment financing, or TIF, is a method of financing economic development projects first used in California in 1952. Since then, 48 other states have enacted TIF legislation with Arizona being the lone holdout. It was originally conceived as a method for combating urban blight, but over time it has become the go-to tool for local politicians pushing economic development in general. For example, Baltimore is considering using TIF to raise $535 million to help Under Armor founder Kevin Plank develop Port Covington.

So how does TIF work? Though the particulars can vary by state, the basic mechanism is usually similar. First, an area is designated as a TIF district. TIF districts are mostly industrial or commercial areas rather than residential areas since the goal is to encourage economic development.

Usually, in an effort to ensure that TIF is used appropriately, the municipal government that designates the area as a TIF has to assert that economic development would not take place absent the TIF designation and subsequent investment. This is known as the ‘but-for’ test, since the argument is that development would not occur but for the TIF. Though the ‘but-for’ test is still applied, some argue that it is largely pro forma.

Once an area has been designated as a TIF district, the property values in the area are assessed in order to create a baseline value. The current property tax rate is applied to the baseline assessed value to determine the amount of revenue that is used for the provision of local government goods and services (roads, police, fire, water etc.). This value will then be frozen for a set period of time (e.g. up to 30 years in North Carolina), and any increase in assessed property values that occurs after this time and the subsequent revenue generated will be used to pay for the economic development project(s) in the TIF district.

The key idea is that municipalities can borrow against the projected property value increases in order to pay for current economic development projects. A simple numerical example will help clarify how TIF works.

In the table below there are five years. In year 1 the assessed value of the property in the TIF district is $20 million and it is determined that it takes $1 million per year to provide the government goods and services needed in the area (road maintenance, sewage lines, police/fire protection, etc.). A tax rate of 5% is applied to the $20 million of assessed value to raise the necessary $1 million (Tax revenue column).

TIF example table

The municipality issues bonds totaling $1 million to invest in an economic development project in the TIF district. As an example, let’s say the project is renovating an old business park in order to make it more attractive to 21st century startups. The plan is that improving the business park will make the area more desirable and increase the property values in the TIF district. As the assessed value increases the extra tax revenue raised by applying the 5% rate to the incremental value of the property will be used to pay off the bonds (incremental revenue column).

Meanwhile, the $1 million required for providing the government goods and services will remain intact, since only the incremental increase in assessed value is used to pay for the business park improvements. Hence the term Tax Increment Financing.

As shown in the table, if the assessed value of the property increases by $2 million per year for 4 years the municipality will recoup the $1 million required to amortize the bond (I’m omitting interest to keep it simple). Each $1 million dollars of increased value increase tax revenue by $50,000 without increasing the tax rate, which is what allows the municipality to pay for the economic development without raising property tax rates. For many city officials this is an attractive feature since property owners usually don’t like tax rate increases.

City officials may also prefer TIF to the issuance of general obligation bonds since the latter often require voter approval while TIF does not. This is the case in North Carolina. TIF supporters claim that this gives city officials more flexibility in dealing with the particular needs of development projects. However, it also allows influential individuals to push TIF through for projects that a majority of voters may not support.

While TIF can be used for traditional government goods like roads, sewer systems, water systems, and public transportation, it can also be used for private goods like business parks and sports facilities. The former arguably provide direct benefits to all firms in the TIF district since better roads, streetscapes and water systems can be used by any firm in the area. The latter projects, though they may provide indirect benefits to nearby firms in the form of more attractive surroundings and increased property values, mostly benefit the owners of entity receiving the development funding. Like other development incentives, TIF can be used to subsidize private businesses with taxpayer dollars.

Projects that use TIF are often described as ‘self-financing’ since the project itself is supposedly what creates the higher property values that pay for it. Additionally, TIF is often sold to voters as a way to create jobs or spur additional private investment in blighted areas. But there is no guarantee that the development project will lead to increased private sector investment, more jobs or higher property values. Researchers at the UNC School of Government explain the risks of TIF in a 2008 Economic Bulletin:

“Tax increment financing is not a silver bullet solution to development problems. There is no guarantee that the initial public investment will spur sufficient private investment, over time, that creates enough increment to pay back the bonds. Moreover, even if the investment succeeds on paper, it may do so by “capturing” growth that would have occurred even without the investment. Successful TIF districts can place an additional strain on existing public resources like schools and parks, whose funding is frozen at base valuation levels while growth in the district increases demand for their services.”

The researchers also note that it’s often larger corporations that municipalities are trying to attract with TIF dollars, and any subsidies via TIF that the municipality provides to the larger firm gives it an advantage over its already-established, local competitors. This is even more unfair when the local competitor is a small, mom-and-pop business that already faces a difficult challenge due to economies of scale.

There is also little evidence that TIF regularly provides the job or private sector investment that its supporters promise. Chicago is one of the largest users of TIF for economic development and its program has been one of the most widely studied. Research on Chicago’s TIF program found that “Overall, TIF failed to produce the promise of jobs, business development or real estate activity at the neighborhood level beyond what would have occurred without TIF.”

If economic development projects that rely on TIF do not generate additional development above and beyond what would have occurred anyway, then the additional tax revenue due to the higher assessed values is used to pay for an economic development project that didn’t really add anything. Without TIF, that revenue could have been used for providing other government goods and services such as infrastructure or better police and fire protection. Once TIF is used, the additional revenue must be used to pay for the economic development project: it cannot be spent on other services that residents might prefer.

Another study, also looking at the Chicago metro area, found that cities that adopt TIF experience slower property value growth than those that do not. The authors suggest that this is due to a reallocation of resources to TIF districts from other areas of the city. The result is that the TIF districts grow at the expense of the municipality as a whole. This is an example of the TIF working on paper, but only because it is pilfering growth that would have occurred in other areas of the city.

Local politicians often like tax increment financing because it is relatively flexible and enables them to be entrepreneurial in some sense: local officials as venture capitalists. It’s also an easier sell than a tax rate increase or general obligation bonds that require a voter referendum.

But politicians tend to make bad venture capitalists for several reasons. First, it’s usually not their area of expertise and it’s hard: even the professionals occasionally lose money. Second, as Milton Friedman pointed out, people tend to be more careless when spending other people’s money. Local officials aren’t investing their own money in these projects, and when people invest or spend other people’s money they tend to emphasize the positive outcomes and downplay the negative ones since they aren’t directly affected. Third, pecuniary factors don’t always drive the decision. Different politicians like different industries and businesses – green energy, biotech, advanced manufacturing, etc. – for various reasons and their subjective, non-pecuniary preferences may cause them to ignore the underlying financials of a project and support a bad investment.

If TIF is going to be used it should be used on things like public infrastructure – roads, sewer/water lines, sidewalks – rather than specific private businesses. This makes it harder to get distracted by non-pecuniary factors and does a better – though not perfect – job of directly helping development in general rather than a specific company or private developer. But taxpayers should be aware of the dangers of TIF and politicians and developers should not tout it as a panacea for jump-starting an area’s economy.

We don’t need more federal infrastructure spending

Many of the presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle have expressed interest in fixing America’s infrastructure, including Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. All of them claim that America’s roads and bridges are crumbling and that more money, often in the form of tax increases, is needed before they fall into further disrepair.

The provision of basic infrastructure is one of the most economically sound purposes of government. Good roads, bridges, and ports facilitate economic transactions and the exchange of ideas which helps foster innovation and economic growth. There is certainly room to debate which level of government – federal, state, or local – should provide which type of infrastructure, but I want to start by examining US infrastructure spending over time. To hear the candidates talk one would think that infrastructure spending has fallen of a cliff. What else could explain the current derelict state?

A quick look at the data shows that this simply isn’t true. A 2015 CBO report on public spending on transportation and water infrastructure provides the following figure.

CBO us infrastructure spending

In inflation adjusted dollars (the top panel) infrastructure spending has exhibited a positive trend and was higher on average post 1992 after the completion of the interstate highway system. (By the way, the original estimate for the interstate system was $25 billion over 12 years and it ended up costing $114 billion over 35 years.)

The bottom panel shows that spending as a % of GDP has declined since the early 80s, but it has never been very high, topping out at approximately 6% in 1965. Since the top panel shows an increase in the level of spending, the decline relative to GDP is due to the government increasing spending in other areas over this time period, not cutting spending on infrastructure.

The increase in the level of spending over time is further revealed when looking at per capita spending. Using the data from the CBO report and US population data I created the following figure (dollars are adjusted for inflation and are in 2014 dollars).

infrastructure spend per cap

The top green line is total spending per capita, the middle red line is state and local spending with federal grants and loan subsidies subtracted out, and the bottom blue line is federal spending. Federal spending per capita has remained relatively flat while state and local spending experienced a big jump in the late 80s, which increased the total as well. This graph shows that the amount of infrastructure spending has largely increased when adjusted for inflation and population. It’s true that spending is down since the early 2000s but it’s still higher than at any point prior to the early 90s and higher than it was during the 35-year-construction of the interstate highway system.

Another interesting thing that jumps out is that state and local governments provide the bulk of infrastructure spending. The graph below depicts the percentage of total infrastructure spending that is done by state and local governments.

infrastructure spend state, local as percent of total

As shown in the graph state and local spending on infrastructure has accounted for roughly 75% of total infrastructure spending since the late 80s. Prior to that it averaged about 70% except for a dip to around 65% in the late 70s.

All of this data shows that the federal government – at least in terms of spending – has not ignored the country’s infrastructure over the last 50 plus years, despite the rhetoric one hears from the campaign trail. In fact, on a per capita basis total infrastructure spending has increased since the early 1980s, driven primarily by state and local governments.

And this brings up a second important point: state and local governments are and have always been the primary source of infrastructure spending. The federal government has historically played a small role in building and maintaining roads, bridges, and water infrastructure. And for good reason. As my colleague Veronique de Rugy has pointed out :

“…infrastructure spending by the federal government tends to suffer from massive cost overruns, waste, fraud, and abuse. As a result, many projects that look good on paper turn out to have much lower return on investments than planned.”

As evidence she notes that:

“According to the Danish researchers, American cost overruns reached on average $55 billion per year. This figure includes famous disasters like the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (CA/T), better known as the Boston Big Dig.22 By the time the Beantown highway project—the most expensive in American history—was completed in 2008 its price tag was a staggering $22 billion. The estimated cost in 1985 was $2.8 billion. The Big Dig also wrapped up 7 years behind schedule.”

Since state and local governments are doing the bulk of the financing anyway and most infrastructure is local in nature it is best to keep the federal government out as much as possible. States are also more likely to experiment with private methods of infrastructure funding. As de Rugy points out:

“…a number of states have started to finance and operate highways privately. In 1995, Virginia opened the Dulles Greenway, a 14-mile highway, paid for by private bond and equity issues. Similar private highway projects have been completed, or are being pursued, in California, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels leased the highways and made a $4 billion profit for the state’s taxpayers. Consumers in Indiana were better off: the deal not only saved money, but the quality of the roads improved as they were run more efficiently.”

It remains an open question as to exactly how much more money should be devoted to America’s infrastructure. But even if the amount is substantial it’s not clear that the federal government needs to get any more involved than they already are. Infrastructure is largely a state and local issue and that is where the taxing and spending should take place, not in Washington D.C.

 

 

Post-Katrina HUD funding has underwhelmed in Gulfport

Hurricane Katrina made landfall 10 years ago and devastated much of the gulf coast. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, both public and private aid flooded into the effected areas. Not all of this aid was effective, and my colleagues at the Mercatus Center have meticulously analyzed what worked, what didn’t, and how the region was largely able to get back on its feet.

One project that is still being scrutinized is the Port of Gulfport Restoration Program. In 2007 the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) requested that $567 million of federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds be diverted to the newly created Port of Gulfport Restoration Program. Prior to Katrina there were 2,058 direct maritime jobs at the port, and the 2007 plan submitted to HUD projected that there would be 5,400 direct, indirect, and induced jobs once the restoration project was complete in 2015. In return for the money the administrators promised HUD that at least 1,300 jobs would be created, and HUD Secretary Julian Castro was recently in Gulfport to check on the progress that has been made. As is typical with HUD projects, the actual progress on the ground has not lived up to the hype.

In September of 2014, nine years after Katrina, the port employed only 814 people. This was well short of even the 2,348 jobs predicted by 2010 in the original 2007 plan. Ignoring the fact that jobs are a poor metric for judging economic development – labor is a cost, not a benefit – the project has failed to live up to the promise made to federal taxpayers who are footing the bill.

HUD funding has a long history of failure. Billions of HUD money has poured into cities such as Detroit and Cleveland since the 1970s with little to show for it. Moreover, any successful HUD story is really just the result of transferring economic activity from one place to another. The $570 million being spent in Gulfport came from taxpayers all over the country who could have spent that money on other things. Moving all of that money to Gulfport caused small declines in economic activity all over the country, such as less investment in local businesses and/or lower demand for local goods and services. These small declines are hard to see relative to the big splash that $570 million in spending creates, but they are real and they do affect people.

Large, federal spending projects rarely live up to their hype and usually waste resources. Local citizens using local assets are often much more effective at revitalizing devastated communities. There are lessons to be learned from Hurricane Katrina, and at the top of the list is don’t expect too much from federally funded programs – they are usually not up to the challenge.

Hercules, California’s Herculean debts

What lead the city of Hercules, California to default on its debts? Guest poster Marc Joffe, Principal Consultant at Public Sector Credit, finds a case of mission-creep in the “dynamic city on the Bay’s”  decision to issue debt to finance power plants and affordable housing.

(For more of Marc Joffe’s research on modeling credit risk, read his 2013 Mercatus Working paper comparing Illinois and Indiana)

Hercules, California Public Power Failure Leads to Default

by Marc Joffe

Cities can default on obligations to their creditors without filing for Chapter IX bankruptcy protection.  This is the lesson of Hercules, California – a 25,000-resident San Francisco suburb whose finances are not quite as mighty as its name implies. Hercules experience is also illustrative of the risks that cities take when they expand beyond their core functions of public safety and public works.

The city is threatening to default on $12.8 million of municipal bonds as early as this August.  In a tender offer issued earlier this month, Hercules offered holders of these bonds 90% of their securities’ face value. According to the bondholder notice, “If an insufficient number of bonds are not tendered, the City anticipates it will soon default on the bonds.” Offering bondholders 90 cents on the dollar in order to avoid facing the risk of non-payment is, for all intents and purposes, a default.

In fact, it is the city’s third default in recent years. In 2011, Hercules failed to repay a $3.75 million loan from the California Housing Financing Agency (CHFA). The state loan was intended to support a mixed use development Hercules planned to build. The development, which included a large affordable housing component, was stymied by neighborhood opposition to low income housing and the City’s inability to acquire a portion of the intended construction site from a nearby homeowner’s association. Earlier this year, Hercules sold the site to a developer who plans to build market rate housing. It has also agreed to repay the CHFA loan in installments through 2026 at a reduced interest rate.

Hercules’ second default occurred on February 1, 2012, when it failed to make a $2.4 million interest payments on Redevelopment Agency (RDA) bonds. The default was absorbed by Ambac, the agency’s municipal bond insurer. Ambac filed suit against the city claiming it had failed to remit RDA related property tax collections to the bond trustee as required. In March 2012, Ambac and the City settled the litigation with the City pledging two parcels of land to the insurer. The City further agreed to place these two properties on the market, apparently to offset the $4.05 million property tax remittance the city had failed to make earlier.

The most recent default (or, more euphemistically, the current tender offer) involves bonds issued to finance a failed public power scheme. In 2001, the City established a public power company – the Hercules Municipal Utility (HMU) – on the assumption that it could replace the area’s for-profit utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). The expectation was that HMU would generate a similar rate of profit to PG&E, but under public ownership, those profits could fund other city spending priorities. Unfortunately for Hercules creditors and taxpayers, things did not work out as planned.

In a 2011 expose, the Huffington Post reported that HMU was serving only 840 customers, charging rates 17% higher than PG&E and had lost money in every year since its 2003 inception. In 2010, the City issued $13.5 million in new bonds to finance HMU, but the proceeds were never invested. Now the City has agreed to sell its power plant to the local utility – Pacific Gas & Electric. Unfortunately, PG&E’s bid was insufficient to retire the $12.8 million in 2010 bonds still outstanding and (for reasons discussed below) the city lacks reserves that could be used to fully redeem these remaining bonds. Thus the need for a 90% tender offer.

Municipal bond analysts often assess a city’s fiscal well-being by reviewing its audited financial statements. Unfortunately, Hercules routinely files its audited financials on a delayed basis. Currently, the latest available statements for Hercules are for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011. Many California cities have already filed their 2013 audits. The failure to file audited financials on a timely basis is part of a larger financial management issue in Hercules. In May and November 2012, the State Controller’s Office issued three audits highly critical of the city’s fiscal controls. One report “found the City of Hercules’ administrative and internal accounting control deficiencies to be serious and pervasive.” These insufficient controls may explain why RDA tax revenues could be directed away from debt service, thereby subjecting the city to costly litigation.

As shown in the accompanying table, Hercules has persistently run large General Fund deficits since 2008.  The city’s inability to balance its books has resulted in the depletion of its financial reserves. According to Hercules most recent budget, the city had a negative unassigned General Fund balance at the end of FY 2012 and FY 2013, meaning it had no reserves that had not already been earmarked for one purpose or another. Despite having borrowed over $150 million, the city thus lacked liquid assets to cover contingencies.

Hercules General Fund Performance (FY 2008-FY2013)

Year

Revenues

Expenditures

Surplus/(Deficit)

2008

13,927,154

15,238,000

(1,310,846)

2009

14,738,289

17,274,960

(2,536,671)

2010

16,422,677

20,683,147

(4,260,470)

2011

11,823,076

16,232,313

(4,409,237)

2012

10,754,530

12,893,983

(2,139,453)

2013

11,151,014

12,288,943

(1,137,929)

Sources: Hercules Audited Financial Statements (FY 2008-2011), FY 2014 Budget.
FY 2012 and FY 2013 are unaudited estimates.

 

Hercules fiscal straitjacket appears to be the result of government overreach. Instead of focusing on efficient delivery of basic services and providing effective financial oversight, City leaders ventured into enterprises attractive to many of their Progressive constituents: publicly owned power and publicly-financed affordable housing. Lacking the skills to properly manage these undertakings, city leadership squandered large sums of borrowed money and ran down their financial reserves. The result for Hercules will be years of higher taxes, subpar real estate performance and reduced access to the municipal bond market.

 

Markets Fail and Governments Do Too

We often hear that markets fail when it comes to preserving the environment, so government regulation is needed to protect natural resources from the ravages of capitalism. But what happens when government regulations themselves get in the way of innovative ideas that move us towards a cleaner and more environmentally sustainable future?

This is exactly what happened in Logan City, Utah when the local government built a small hydropower turbine and ran into a nightmare of regulatory red tape that led to large cost overruns and far more time committed to the project than was originally anticipated. In the end, the project was delayed four years and ended up costing twice as much as planned.

This abstract from a recent working paper from the Mercatus Center describes what happened:

In 2004 Logan, Utah, saw the opportunity to place a turbine within the city’s culinary water system. The turbine would reduce excess water pressure and would generate clean, low-cost electricity for the city’s residents. Federal funding was available, and the city qualified for a grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Unfortunately, Logan City found that a complex and costly federal nexus of regulatory requirements must be met before any hydropower project can be licensed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This regulation drove up costs in terms of time and money and, as a result, Logan City is not planning to undertake any similar projects in the future. Other cities have had similar experiences to Logan’s, and we briefly explore these as well. We find that regulation is likely deterring the development of small hydropower potential across the United States, and that reform is warranted.

This wouldn’t be the first time that regulations have led to perverse environmental outcomes. To prevent these problems in the future, agencies need to take better account of the expected costs and benefits of their rules before finalizing them. For example, recent analysis by myself and my colleague Richard Williams shows that agencies only rarely estimate dollar values for both benefits and costs of their regulations.

Another improvement would be for agencies to consider more flexible approaches when regulating. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently proposed a rule to reduce silica exposure for workers. The rule requires businesses to consider gas masks or other personal protection equipment only as a last resort. Other methods of controlling silica dust, like enclosing work areas or using sprays and vacuums, should be considered first. These methods are likely to be more burdensome than asking workers to wear a gas mask. The agency should consider offering more flexibility to businesses and workers if it wants to relieve some unnecessary burden in its proposed rule.

Of course it’s true that markets can fail. But it’s important to remember that governments often fail too. Only an approach that considers both market failure and government failure can illuminate the best course of action when addressing a serious social problem like environmental degradation. Furthermore, until regulators start acting more like the experts we expect them to be, government is likely to fail just as much, if not more often, than markets.

Local control over transportation: good in principle but not being practiced

State and local governments know their transportation needs better than Washington D.C. But that doesn’t mean that state and local governments are necessarily more efficient or less prone to public choice problems when it comes to funding projects, and some of that is due to the intertwined funding streams that make up a transportation budget.

Emily Goff at The Heritage Foundation finds two such examples in the recent transportation bills passed in Virginia and Maryland.

Both Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley propose raising taxes to fund new transit projects. In Virginia the state will eliminate the gas tax and replace it with an increase in the sales tax. This is a move away from a user-based tax to a more general source of taxation, severing the connection between those who use the roads and those who pay. The gas tax is related to road use; sales taxes are barely related. There is a much greater chance of political diversion of sales tax revenues to subsidized transit projects: trolleys, trains and bike paths, rather than using revenues for road improvements.

Maryland reduces the gas tax by five cents to 18.5 cents per gallon and imposes a new wholesale tax on motor fuels.

How’s the money being spent? In Virginia 42 percent of the new sales tax revenues will go to mass transit with the rest going to highway maintenance. As Goff notes this means lower -income southwestern Virginians will subsidize transit for affluent northern Virginians every time they make a nonfood purchase.

As an example, consider Arlington’s $1 million dollar bus stop. Arlingtonians chipped in $200,000 and the rest came from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). It’s likely with a move to the sales tax, we’ll see more of this. And indeed, according to Arlington Now, there’s a plan for 24 more bus stops to compliment the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar, a light rail project that is the subject of a lively local debate.

Revenue diversions to big-ticket transit projects are also incentivized by the states trying to come up with enough money to secure federal grants for Metrorail extensions (Virginia’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport and Maryland’s Purple Line to New Carrolton).

Truly modernizing and improving roads and mass transit could be better achieved by following a few principles.

  • First, phase out federal transit grants which encourage states to pursue politically-influenced and costly projects that don’t always address commuters’ needs. (See the rapid bus versus light rail debate).
  • Secondly, Virginia and Maryland should move their revenue system back towards user-fees for road improvements. This is increasingly possible with technology and a Vehicle Miles Tax (VMT), which the GAO finds is “more equitable and efficient” than the gas tax.
  • And lastly, improve transit funding. One way this can be done is through increasing farebox recovery rates. The idea is to get transit fares in line with the rest of the world.

Interestingly, Paris, Madrid, and Tokyo have built rail systems at a fraction of the cost of heavily-subsidized projects in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Stephen Smith, writing at Bloomberg, highlights that a big part of the problem in the U.S. are antiquated procurement laws that limit bidders on transit projects and push up costs. These legal restrictions amount to real money. French rail operator SNCF estimated it could cut $30 billion off of the proposed $68 billion California light rail project. California rejected the offer and is sticking with the pricier lead contractor.