Monique Rollins: Fully Using Infrastructure Project Data

January 23, 2018

In 1808, Secretary Albert Gallatin of the US Treasury published Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the Subject of Public Roads and Canals, a detailed document outlining specific public infrastructure projects (Gallatin 1808). The piece, visionary because of its bold outline of infrastructure needs for our fledgling nation, provided a detailed picture of specific assets and related project costs. Today, we need a similarly innovative outlook and a detailed, data-driven approach to the $1.4 trillion infrastructure funding deficit facing the United States (Economic Development Research Group 2016).

Effective project selection requires a fulsome dataset, including accessible project cost information, project attributes, and performance data. Taken together, a detailed inventory of assets emerges, serving as a critical assessment tool for decisionmakers.  Better data will improve project selection and outcomes. In a world where big data and financial technology make daily leaps, improving and standardizing infrastructure data is obtainable. Elevating best practices from state and local governments and the private sector in data collection, dissemination, and analysis, as well as centralizing data at the federal level, can accelerate these efforts. 

Benchmarking Project Costs and Attributes

Although each project has its own elements, access to a project database that can be quickly analyzed to understand project costs would reduce the time required to make an informed decision, therefore bringing down “friction” costs for project sponsors.  As highlighted in “Cultivating a Strategic Project Portfolio through Transportation Asset Management,” the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) generated a granular dataset for information on ARRA-funded projects (Lew 2017). This dataset could be valuable to researchers and be a starting point for an infrastructure database. The ARRA dataset provides general information, such as project details and purpose, as well as more detailed information, such as contractor information, funds provided to the contractor, and project status.1 In the future, even more detailed information could be required, including material and labor costs and time to completion at the contractor and subcontractor levels. In selecting the data fields, competitive and proprietary information should get balanced against value to the project sponsors and for public transparency.

Project sponsors could use comparable data for making investments related to new or existing assets. Beyond construction costs, project attributes are essential to understanding an asset’s economic and social possibilities, criteria critical in evaluating which projects to fund. Comparable projects could be studied to examine how much revenue an asset would generate versus the costs it would incur, the capital structures of comparable projects to determine how much debt the asset might bear in principal and interest, and social or environmental benefits. Benchmarking project information provides state and local governments critical data in assessing public assets and determining how and when to invest, improving the long-term resilience and sustainability of our assets. 

Any infrastructure legislation that provides additional federal funding to state projects should have detailed project cost and attribute reporting requirements. A federal requirement to collect and centralize project data would increase the likelihood of standardization and usability. Some consultants provide infrastructure databases to help clients benchmark project costs. These analytical packages are useful, but a baseline publicly accessible database for infrastructure projects should be developed and made broadly available.

Project Performance Data

After a project is completed, tracking performance is critical. Performance can be measured in several ways, such as cars on a road, gallons of water consumed, kilowatts of energy used, or revenues collected. Both financial and nonfinancial data can help stakeholders better understand an infrastructure asset and help improve decisionmaking about how the asset or project should be evaluated compared with other existing infrastructure efforts. More data exist on infrastructure assets that have been traditionally funded by private capital, which opens up greater opportunities to analyze key performance indicators and assess performance.2 Energy and utility companies are often publicly traded, and in these cases, a company’s listed equity or debt securities serve as a market tool to track performance. Entity-level disclosures also provide quarterly financial performance. Tracked performance metrics tend to include the following:

Tracked performance metrics

Additionally, metrics tracking environmental sustainability, worker health and safety, and impact on the community are essential to evaluating the full performance of a project.

Performance data on traditionally publicly owned assets, such as transportation and water, can be expanded. A gap exists for collecting and aggregating project-level data and making it broadly available. Making data broadly available would bring the costs of an infrastructure project down for private capital. The more performance data investors can review and model over an economic cycle, the lower the risk premium, which will price the capital at more attractive levels. Although federal dollars provide critical funding for infrastructure, private-sector investment with safeguards to protect local users and employees is increasingly necessary, given the infrastructure deficit the US faces. Easily accessible current and historical project-level performance data would accelerate a sound infrastructure investment process, spurring private-sector scalability. Even if private investment is not optimal or preferred, better operational data in infrastructure would hold project sponsors and other stakeholders accountable for the assets and provide early warning signals should performance lag, highlighting the need for remedial action. Performance data also provide the ability to benchmark against project comparables, an essential exercise for project-related decisionmaking. Infrastructure legislation should encourage the publication of project performance metrics, perhaps structured as an incentive to receive additional federal funds.

Asset Inventory and Assessment

Bridging the Gap Together: A New Model to Modernize Infrastructure shows that a comprehensive list of publicly owned assets would provide the public sector an important strategic planning tool (Bipartisan Policy Center 2016). Additionally, investors, who have long grumbled about the lack of a transparent project pipeline, would have a tool to comprehensively review the investment opportunities in public US infrastructure. Combining accessible project costs, characteristics, and performance data across infrastructure silos into a robust catalogue of assets would create a powerful assessment vehicle for policymakers, project sponsors, and capital providers. Some states may already be using an asset inventory or illustrating project prioritization. The table below highlights useful state-level activity here.3 Activities range from the state treasurer of California proposing a broader statewide asset review to New Mexico developing an asset management plan template for a water asset review (Chiang 2016).4 Interestingly, Washington, DC, describes the development of its Capital Asset Replacement Scheduling System as taking databases that already exist from local agencies and updating the data from others and combining it into one central database (CFO 2017).5 That is a lot of up-front work, but the long-term efficiencies in having a center of combined information creates value in the long run. The table also includes Virginia, as a clear project selection framework, and Texas, whose department of transportation depicts projects under way. Although these are about projects selected or under way and are not broad asset reviews, they further public data on infrastructure projects.6

These examples of accessible infrastructure project information are laudable. We should seek an environment that promotes innovation at the state and local level. But an asset inventory is also an example of how centralized coordination at the federal level could create standardization and bring down costs. The US Department of Transportation’s asset management rule highlights a federal agency coordinating a process for managing assets over their lifecycle across states (Federal Highway Administration 2016).  Coordination across infrastructure silos beyond transportation would also bring great benefits. There has long been a debate on the merits of an infrastructure bank (a proposal outside the scope of this essay), but at a minimum, collecting and standardizing data across states and infrastructure silos seems well suited for a coordinating body within the federal government. Infrastructure legislation should facilitate coordination of an asset inventory driven by states and localities.

Conclusion

We should give policymakers and project sponsors access to the data they need to make thoughtful project selection decisions and bring down friction costs for investors looking at US infrastructure projects. As the Washington, DC, asset inventory highlights, a lot of the data already exist. In some cases, it is a matter of centralizing the information and making it accessible. In other cases, we need to approach data collection from the ground up. Any new legislation should feature requirements for data collection and standardization of infrastructure information. Secretary Gallatin had a detailed vision in 1808. Fully using infrastructure project data will reduce our nation’s unfunded infrastructure investment gap in 2018.  

Notes

  1. Recovery Act Recipient Reports Database,” FedSpending.org, accessed January 11, 2018.
  2. Utilities Leverage Key Performance Indicators to Evolve,” Insights (blog), Baker Tilly, August 25, 2016.
  3. Certain local governments have made progress here as well.
  4. See the asset management plan, outline, and checklist at “New Mexico Water Infrastructure Team,” New Mexico Environment Department, accessed January 3, 2018.
  5. Jake Varn, “DC Leads the Way with a Comprehensive Asset Inventory,” (blog), Bipartisan Policy Center, December 1, 2017.
  6. Projects,” Virginia.gov, accessed January 3, 2018; and “Project Tracker,” Texas Department of Transportation, accessed January 3, 2018. 

References

Bipartisan Policy Center. 2016. Bridging the Gap Together: A New Model to Modernize US Infrastructure. Washington, DC: Bipartisan Policy Center.

CFO (Office of the Chief Financial Officer). 2017. District of Columbia Long-Range Capital Financial Plan Report. Washington, DC: Government of the District of Columbia, CFO.

Chiang, John. 2016. Building California’s Future Begins Today: Modernizing Public Finance and the Treasurer’s Office. Sacramento, CA: Office of the State Treasurer.

Economic Development Research Group. 2016. Failure to Act: Closing the Infrastructure Investment Gap for America’s Economic Future. Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers.

Federal Highway Administration. 2016. “Asset Management Plans and Processes Fact Sheet.” Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration.

Gallatin, Albert. 1808. Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the Subject of Public Roads and Canals. Washington, DC: US Treasury.

Lew, Shoshana. 2017. “Cultivating a Strategic Project Portfolio through Transportation Asset Management.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute.


Monique Rollins is the former acting assistant secretary of the US Treasury for financial markets. She advised the secretary on policies in global finance, market functioning, debt management, housing, and infrastructure finance. Rollins has also been deputy assistant secretary for capital markets.  

Before joining Treasury, Rollins spent over 10 years at Goldman Sachs, primarily as an adviser to large corporations on capital markets transactions and corporate finance strategy. She holds a BA in international affairs and economics, magna cum laude, from Brown University and an MBA with honors from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.