Port investor offers plan to confront joblessness

WASHINGTON — — A Maryland financier who helped privatize the Seagirt Marine Terminal in 2009 is trying to sell Congress on an ambitious, $250 billion plan he says would modernize the nation's crumbling infrastructure while creating millions of jobs.

Christopher H. Lee, whose investment firm owns the company managing the terminal, is pressing lawmakers on Capitol Hill to create an independent board that would oversee billions of dollars in highway, airport and mass transit projects. His plan also calls for speeding government approval of those projects.

The 58-year-old businessman, who lives in Ruxton when he's not in New York, said he wants to curb the inefficiencies he believes government creates when it takes on large construction projects. But experts suspect his plan would face long odds in a frugal and politically divided Congress.

"Infrastructure is a bipartisan issue," said Lee, a 1974 Johns Hopkins University graduate who now sits on the school's board of trustees. "Everybody wants to improve our infrastructure and everybody wants to solve our unemployment problem."

Generally, Lee wants Congress to create what's known as an infrastructure bank, a quasi-private entity that would receive $250 billion in startup money from the federal government that he believes could leverage another $750 billion in private cash. The bank, managed by a government-appointed board, would invest in projects that return money to the fund through tolls or fees.

The fundamental idea is not radical. Europe has had a similar institution in place since the 1950s. President Barack Obama, along with a number of Senate Republicans, has proposed an infrastructure bank. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which tends to be aligned with the GOP, has supported the concept.

But Lee's plan breaks from orthodoxy on two fronts: First, he's seeking a far higher upfront investment from taxpayers. Obama's plan, by comparison, called for only $30 billion in public funding. Second, Lee would create a separate board to "fast track" approval of certain projects — meaning they would not face the same environmental, labor and safety standards as other projects.

"Without that, our infrastructure is going to continue to rapidly deteriorate," Lee said.

That fast-track proposal could prove attractive to some Republicans who won their elections in 2010 in part by arguing that burdensome government regulations are stifling economic growth, but it would also be extremely controversial and, some experts suggest, may not even be constitutional.

"His idea that spending needs to be much more ambitious than has been proposed is correct," said Donna Cooper, a senior fellow of economic policy at the liberal Center for American Progress. "But it's not really practical to suggest a board that supersedes federal and state laws."

Cooper, who served under former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, acknowledges that more could be done to cut government red tape on large public works projects. But she said many roadblocks — such as lengthy court battles that arise when government takes private property for a project through eminent domain — can't be wished away a federal board.

"No 'fast-track' board is going to be able to supersede people's ability to sue," she said.

Lee has been meeting with members of Congress and congressional staff — he declines to say who — and also wrote a series of opinion pieces in Capitol Hill newspapers such as Politico and Roll Call.

There is little disagreement about the need for investment in the nation's infrastructure. A report this year by the Washington-based Urban Land Institute found that U.S. efforts to maintain highways, bridges and water lines is falling behind other nations. To catch up, the group suggested the country invest $2 trillion.

Nor is there significant controversy surrounding the idea that money spent on public works projects creates jobs — though estimates vary widely on how many.

But finding the money to pay for the investment, particularly at a time when Washington is focused on reducing the nation's deficit, is difficult. Many are skeptical of such investments after the 2009 economic stimulus pushed by Obama and passed by Congress failed to significantly reduce the unemployment rate.

"There is a lot of work going on to try and find every possible revenue source at the federal level to just afford the basic highway and transit programs," said Janet F. Kavinoky, executive director of transportation infrastructure for the Chamber of Commerce. Infrastructure, she said, "is in competition with everything else in the federal budget for dollars."

Despite lean times, lawmakers are trying some new approaches to pay for infrastructure. A pending Senate proposal with bipartisan support, for instance, boosts funding for a federal program called the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. Like an infrastructure bank, the program provides loans for highway and transit projects.

But the initiative is run by the Federal Highway Administration. Its funding — which would increase from about $120 million to $1 billion annually under the Senate bill — is far less expensive than Lee's proposal.

Lee founded a New York-based investment firm called Highstar Capital that owns Ports America. In 2009, the Maryland Board of Public Works agreed to lease the management of Seagirt to the company for 50 years. Ports America collects the revenue from the operation and, in exchange, is building critical upgrades, including a 50-foot-deep berth to accommodate larger ships.

The deal, embraced by Gov. Martin O'Malley, has created thousands of jobs.

Lee said his proposed infrastructure bank would focus on funding projects with similar public-private partnerships in place. He says his efforts on Capitol Hill, though, are separate from his work at Highstar.

"It's about more than just money," he said. "To solve our massive unemployment problems, you need to be visionary."