Though it was lost in all the recent Comey kerfuffle, President Trump has finally released his plans for a trillion dollar infrastructure initiative. And it’s as disappointing as it is confusing.
There is no doubt the nation needs to spend on repairing its roads and bridges, its airports and railways. The question is, where to find the money. And with a Republican dominated Congress which is loathe to spend any new funds, the alternatives to government spending are few.
The answer may come in an acronym… P3, which stands for “Public-Private Partnerships.” The president proposes leveraging $200 billion in Federal money with $800 from the private sector.
Mind you, this is not outright “privatization” of public resources like toll bridges and highways. That’s been tried and really backfired.
Consider the City of Chicago’s 2008 selling control of its 36,000 parking meters to an LLC for $1.15 billion in badly needed cash. The 75-year deal was rushed through in just one day, giving lawmakers little chance to consider its long-term implications. The city’s own Inspector General later estimated the city under-priced the deal by $1 billion.
Almost immediately the new owners jacked up parking rates, made the parking spaces smaller and reduced the number of handicap spots. Not only were motorists and citizens outraged, but the reduced availability of parking had a profound effect on business.
Even partnering with private companies on infrastructure deals is fraught with peril as we have seen right here in Connecticut. Our own DOT got snookered in a P3 to build the Fairfield Metro train station when its developer partner couldn’t get financing. The CDOT got left holding the bag, paying to finish the station (which still has no waiting room).
Or consider the horrible experience at the Stamford rail station garage where it took the DOT over three years to walk away from a deal they could never close with a developer with financial ties to Gov. Dannel Malloy’s re-election.
Most government agencies aren’t as smart as private businesses when it comes to analyzing infrastructure for investment. When government owns the assets they are held for the public’s benefit. When business comes on board, their only concern is their bottom line.
And even the $200 billion Trump proposes the government will spend will only go to states that can match federal money with their own. And we know how little money is left in most state coffers, like our own, to spend on road repairs.
Even Democrats, like U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, (D-4th District) who were anxious to partner with Trump on infrastructure were disappointed by the President’s plan as it was so short on details.
The one privatization the president did detail was a plan to takeover our nation’s air traffic control system, now costing $10 billion a year. The concept has worked in Canada and several EU countries and our airways could certainly benefit from a tech upgrade to GPS from old radar-based systems.
But upgrading any of these crucial infrastructures is like changing a fan-belt on a moving car. At stake are human lives as all of these systems are, as they say, “mission critical.” There is zero margin of error, especially for our impatient President.
Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media. Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.