How to Embed Sustainability Into U.S. Infrastructure

Public-private partnerships could hold the key to a chronic problem in the United States.

Since the U.S. election, there has been a lot of discussion about rebuilding America’s infrastructure — namely, its electricity, transportation and water and sewage systems.

Elected officials of both parties, academics, industry associations and other experts agree that the United States has underspent on infrastructure for decades, leading to a slow deterioration.

According to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, transport and water infrastructure spending has been fairly consistent in the past 50 years — at around 2.4 percent of GDP (for comparison, China spends about three times more).

In a recent Gallup poll, 75 percent of Americans said that the country should spend more on infrastructure. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, in addition to normal investment, as much as $1.4 trillion in additional investment is needed in the next decade to improve U.S. infrastructure.

Creating opportunity

BSR sees investing in U.S. infrastructure as a major opportunity to create employment, upgrade to climate-friendly systems and build a transportation system fit for a low-carbon economy.

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In a recent Gallup poll, 75 percent of Americans said that the country should spend more on infrastructure.

While much of the future infrastructure development will be financed by government, a key expectation is that additional new money would also come from the private sector via public-private partnership (PPP) models, where the private sector assumes major risks, costs and management responsibilities for infrastructure development and operations.

The reason for a likely increase in privately developed and financed infrastructure is multifaceted:

  • More than 80 percent of U.S. infrastructure funding comes at the state and local level, and about two-thirds of states have PPP legislation or demonstration projects in place. A Harvard review cited approximately $61 billion in new PPP investment in the United States in the past 10 years.
  • Some elected officials prefer to limit further government debt financing of infrastructure.
  • For some infrastructure, the private sector can more quickly and innovatively develop projects.
  • PPPs allow for risk sharing by developers, operators, financiers and government.
  • Long-term private sector operational and maintenance responsibilities are built into projects from the beginning.

Applying the right model

Before BSR, I was an infrastructure PPP economist for almost a decade at the World Bank and taught about PPPs at Harvard Kennedy School.

In general, the PPP model has been applied widely and successfully in some countries, less successfully in others, and — as per the above — remains in its infancy in the United States.

Global experience has shown a valuable lesson for the United States: Both governments and corporate leaders must work together to ensure environmental and social risks are properly managed and societal costs and benefits are fairly spread out. Otherwise, infrastructure PPPs are doomed to fail.

Sustainability considerations should be prominent in all three PPP project phases: the design phase, the development phase and the operational phase.

The biggest sustainability impacts are determined in the design phase. This may be obvious when we’re discussing solar farms versus coal power plants in the power generation industry.

A matter of priorities 

In other industries, such as transportation infrastructure, sustainability priorities are less easy to set.

The key question should be whether the United States wants to spend $1 trillion on today’s sustainable practices (such as high-speed electric rail, which has been in Europe and Japan for decades) or whether it wants to focus on the next generation of sustainable transportation infrastructure (such as the Hyperloop or driverless cars), which could bring a quantum leap in sustainability benefits. I am hoping for the latter.

In the development phase, the United States already has high standards on environmental impact assessments and mitigation. But there still are many opportunities to go beyond “doing maximally allowed harm” and improve environmental sustainability impacts.

For example, Atlanta, Boston and San Francisco have LEED-certified airport terminals, which has reduced operational costs. In addition, developers often face challenges with social and stakeholder issues, and engagement of a broad base of sustainability stakeholders is critical for success in this phase.

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Infrastructure projects require a certain type of investor mentality.

During the operational phase, a big social challenge is that PPPs are for-profit businesses. Often, users consider public infrastructure to be free, although they are paying for it through taxes.

When direct user fees enter the picture, there is always a tradeoff between the investors’ desire for financial return and fair pricing of a monopoly service. The $3.8 billion Indiana Toll Road PPP is a good example of a PPP that did not find that balance — and went bankrupt.

Infrastructure projects require a certain type of investor mentality, such as pension funds, which often prefer long-term, lower-risk and predictable returns.

The United States prides itself on its innovators and entrepreneurs, who often look beyond the status quo. I hope this mindset carries over into the design of and planning for our anticipated infrastructure boom.

And as always, BSR hopes that the business benefits of sustainability will be front and center in the minds of our member companies that lead this anticipated infrastructure effort. goldbrown2

This article first appeared on BSR and was republished with permission.

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John Hodges leads BSR's global infrastructure and financial services practices, advising companies on corporate sustainability strategy, responsible investing and project development, and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) risk management.

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