The Perils of Private Infrastructure

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Trump Administration is incapable of pursuing any coherent, sustained legislative strategy. The Administration was unable to play any useful role in fashioning a viable “repeal and replace” health care bill, and it seems equally clueless on the other big agenda item, tax reform. Seeing the Republican legislative machine stall out on those two priority items does not auger well for a third Trump initiative that was once thought to hold some bipartisan appeal: infrastructure spending. That is probably just as well, since any wide-ranging infrastructure bill coming from this Administration and Republican congress would likely be an ideological monstrosity that would entice little Democratic support.

An infrastructure program is, however, more suitable to a piecemeal approach than is health care or tax reform, so it is likely that some sort of  new infrastructure policy emerges over the next eighteen months. Trump’s first budget programmed $200 billion over ten years to implement his infrastructure program (while cutting the Department of Transportation’s budget for the coming year by 13 percent). A fact sheet outlined some of the principles that will guide infrastructure policy.

The Trump infrastructure program will invariably seek to maximize the private-sector role, although the Administration’s fact sheet only hints at that direction with proposals such as removing the cap on private activity bonds. Administration officials are also touting the concept of “asset recycling,” whereby government agencies sell existing public infrastructure to private operators and use the proceeds to invest in new infrastructure projects.

The notion of private firms providing public infrastructure is polarizing, with conservatives portraying public agencies as inherently corrupt and inefficient and the left portraying private operators as inevitably predatory. In reality, the economic infrastructure of the United States has always been a patchwork of private and public operations and whatever prevails in a particular region tends to be taken by its residents as the natural state of affairs. Most passenger rail transportation, for example, was originally developed by private firms but virtually all of it was eventually taken over by government entities. Similarly for water supply systems, although about one-quarter of the U.S. population is still served by private water. Conversely, about 70 percent of American households buy their electricity from private, investor-owned firms. Roads and highways, and commercial airports, have always been developed and operated primarily by governments.

In recent years governments have explored privatizing, or re-privatizing, some infrastructure or contracting with private firms to operate it. Encouraging privatization appears to be a key part of the Republican infrastructure agenda, and that will be controversial enough. Even more problematic, though, will be efforts to incentivize the private creation of new economic infrastructure. In that regard the development of Florida’s long-distance passenger rail network is instructive, highlighting both the opportunities and perils of relying on private firms to develop new infrastructure.

The Florida High Speed Rail Project

Efforts to reestablish intercity passenger rail links in Florida have a  checkered history reaching back decades. In 2000, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment mandating the establishment of a high-speed intercity rail system. In order to implement that mandate, the Florida legislature established the Florida High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) in 2001. However, Florida Governor Jeb Bush was opposed to the idea of a constitutional mandate for transportation infrastructure and was skeptical of the endeavor’s cost. He managed to get the rail mandate repealed in 2004, although the HRSA remained in existence and oversaw the completion in 2005 of an EIS for the Tampa-Orlando segment of a proposed system that was envisioned to eventually run from Tampa to Miami.

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Luxury Housing and the Rest of Us

Does the construction of ultra-luxury apartments raise the cost of housing for everyone else? Simple logic would suggest it doesn’t, insofar as an increase in housing supply should operate to satisfy some housing demand, even if it’s for a thin upper-crust of buyers, thereby relieving price pressure on the rest of the housing stock.

But before jumping to that simple conclusion, less expensive housing that might be demolished to make way for the ultra-luxury building needs to be considered. In the case of 15 Central Park West, one of New York’s most expensive addresses, the 365-room Mayflower Hotel was demolished and replaced by only 202 ultra-luxury units, thereby eliminating affordable housing and reducing overall housing supply. In other cases, however, sites were previously occupied by commercial uses, so there was no offsetting loss of existing housing. Moreover, in New York at least, luxury developers’ purchases of air rights from adjoining properties can lead to the preservation or improvement of existing housing. Overall, it seems that ultra-luxury housing development generally expands the housing supply.

But how does the emergence of an ultra-luxury housing market affect the price of land, and hence the type of housing that can be built in desirable parts of the city?  In theory it doesn’t, because the market values land according to the most profitable use it can be put to, and precisely orders sites according to the marketability of the housing that can be built on each. Each site would be developed accordingly. That is a very static view of the land market, however. In the real world, it can be rational for a land owner to keep her property underutilized if she thinks that at some point it will become a viable site for ultra-luxury housing.

Suppose, for example, that the residual value of land for ultra-luxury housing development is three times as much as for normal, upper-middle income housing. Also imagine that there are ten vacant sites available for development, but that the ultra-luxury market can absorb only one of those sites per year. In a static world, the most desirable of those sites will be purchased to develop ultra-luxury housing and the other nine will be sold to developers of more modest housing. In the real world, however, it may pay for the other nine owners to absorb the carrying costs of their underutilized properties until their turn to sell to an ultra-luxury developer arrives.

Something like this may be playing out in Manhattan now. According to a recent New York Times article: The major impediment to more  of these projects (apartments modestly priced at $1 million to $3 million) coming to market is the price of land, which has not fallen along with the demand for ultraluxurious properties.

So it seems land owners would rather just hold onto their developable sites, hoping that eventually the ultra-luxury market will revive and their turn to sell to that market will come. In the meantime, development of professional-class housing is impeded.