Better Roads Staff
Those factors raise two questions about infrastructure maintenance:
Are supporters of current maintenance those who oppose “deferred maintenance,” a permanent minority in need of constitutional protection in our political system, just like bondholders themselves?
Are special projects like limited-access highways and toll bridges — which produce cash revenue to pay bondholders and where that cash is not normally required to be spent only in the budget appropriation process — in a different analytical position from ordinary infrastructure projects like local roads, bridges, schools, and parks, which produce no cash revenue and where general obligation or other tax-supported bondholders get paid even if the project falls apart?
As to the first question, deferred maintenance is hardly a laudable public-policy goal, despite the pledge of one desperate candidate to be the veritable champion of deferred maintenance. Rather, deferred maintenance is to be avoided if all that crumbling infrastructure is to be avoided.
No one can tell when maintenance is deferred, without granular expertise in capital and operating budgets. As a result, the repudiation risk has no bite. Everyone wants infrastructure to be maintained, but everyone also has multiple higher priorities. No special interest groups or political action committees organize around pro-maintenance slogans. Indeed, interest groups frequently target funds otherwise earmarked for maintenance as a funding source for their own wages, benefits, or transfer payments. Also, few ribbon-cutting photo-ops are held to herald maintenance programs.
So, yes, proponents of current maintenance and opponents of deferred maintenance constitute a permanent minority in need of constitutional protection in the normal budget process.
For the second question, comparing how we finance revenue-generating projects with how we finance ordinary infrastructure suggests a fix. Revenue bond indentures effectively protect maintenance requirements as if they were debt-service requirements by building the former into coverage ratios for the latter. Investors fear projects that are not maintained will fail to generate the requisite revenue to pay debt service.
Generally, no money is released from the lien of a revenue bond indenture unless debt service is paid and operations and maintenance requirements are met. Enforceable covenants require issuers to raise tolls, fares or other charges sufficiently to meet both those requirements.
By contrast, GO and other tax-supported debt instruments are not generally issued with enforceable claims for current maintenance. Ordinary infrastructure projects produce returns in the form of public goods, not cash — public goods that benefit taxpayers, not bondholders. Those projects’ bonds are paid for by taxpayers, not direct users, and taxing and spending for payment are part of the annual budget process, where any pro-maintenance lobby is a perpetual minority.
So, yes, we should consider reconfiguring state and local finance laws, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, to provide the equivalent of debt service protection for maintenance requirements, by authorizing financing mechanisms for ordinary infrastructure that recognize enforceable claims for current maintenance and repair. This would entail authorizing a parallel structure to a revenue-bond financing structure.
The aim here would be for budget-makers to provide for maintenance spending, along with debt service spending, before recognizing other claims on annual revenue. A one-size-fits-all model or uniform law would probably not work for 50 states.
This is not to suggest that maintenance claims are more important than the compelling and competing claims of teachers, police, or sick children. It is, however, to suggest that maintenance claims — like the claims of bondholders — are unlikely ever to be met in the normal political process without structural fiscal safeguards. So, unless we change the rules of the game, we’ll probably have to live with our “crumbling” infrastructure.
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