Bringing American revitalization into our nation's infrastructure plan
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The Trump administration’s proposal for large scale investment in public infrastructure has met with a tepid response on Capitol Hill. Deficit hawks worry that spending on infrastructure will balloon the deficit, environmentalists worry about adverse impacts, and some attack the tax credit funding proposals as a giveaway to the wealthy.

There is, however, a simple idea for public infrastructure investment that would reduce the deficit, reduce the environmental impact of the built environment, avoid appearing to give tax benefits to the rich, and create jobs for citizens across the country: right sizing and modernizing the federal real estate footprint.

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The federal government, and the real estate it occupies, is sprawling. The government owns and operates office buildings, veterans’ administration hospitals, laboratories, prisons, and military bases all across the country. Many, perhaps most, of these facilities, are outmoded, energy inefficient and, in the case of many office buildings, far larger than needed to efficiently house the modern (and possibly shrinking) federal workforce. Many of these buildings also, however, make a seminal contribution to shaping the public space and defining the character of the communities where they exist.

 

Past administrations have shared the vision of Franklin Roosevelt of federal office buildings contributing to community beautification and revitalization. From Union Station in Washington, D.C. to Perry Square in Erie, Pennsylvania, government buildings have contributed to urban landscapes and to economic revival. Maintaining, revitalizing, and repurposing where necessary these unique and remarkable public buildings can contribute to the enduring vitality of our communities. And maintaining these remarkable symbols of our history and culture should be an important part of our public infrastructure investment plan.

Addressing the bloat and waste that outmoded public buildings represents can be addressed through a concerted effort to reduce the federal real estate footprint, and in doing so, great savings in occupancy costs and energy consumption could be realized. In addition, substantial amounts of publicly-owned property could be returned to the private sector for productive use and to generate local real estate and other taxes badly needed by state and local governments. Moreover, reducing the federal footprint will create a significant number of construction and other jobs in the private sector in industries that serve real estate.

These projects can most efficiently be addressed in public-private partnerships. Let us not forget, President Trump, before running for office, entered into just such an arrangement to renew, repurpose, and revitalize the Old Post Office building in downtown Washington, removing blight and employing thousands in the development and operation of a facility formerly costing the government millions in underutilized space.

Similarly, the partnership of the Internal Revenue Service and the private sector, working with local authorities, turned an abandoned railway station and post office complex in downtown Kansas City into the heart of a new and revitalized urban district. Moreover, using a public-private partnership approach, while harnessing the expertise of the private sector, also shifts the risk of the possible downsizing of the federal government to the private sector.

There are agencies housed in Washington in inefficient space twice as large as is needed to serve their current (and future) workforce. They require enormous investment in power to heat and cool, secure and (badly) maintain them. There are antiquated national laboratories in rural America that struggle to serve our country’s vital security and scientific needs in antiquated facilities, some dating back to World War II. There are VA hospitals throughout the country that fail to serve our veterans properly.

And as the Old Post Office project and many dozens more show, the private sector knows how to collaborate with the federal government to fix these problems without increasing federal spending. By reducing inefficiencies, channeling the occupancy costs the government now incurs for inefficient space to pay for modern efficient space, and by easing bureaucratic roadblocks, the Trump administration and Congress can save money, reduce the carbon footprint, and stimulate job growth and local economies across the country in partnership with the private sector.

This is an easy infrastructure investment.

Byron Dorgan served as U.S. Senator from North Dakota from 1992 to 2011. Philip English served as U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2009. Dorgan and English are now senior advisors and the co-chairs of the government relations practice at law firm Arent Fox.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.