What Public–Private Partnerships Are and What They Are Not
After years of underfinancing much-needed repairs and maintenance to America’s infrastructure—by as much as $2.2 trillion, according to some estimates—digging out of the current deficit will be costly. And with state and local governments facing tight budgets, it may be decades before the work will be affordable. The lack of resources for infrastructure improvement and maintenance extends beyond highways and affects a range of public capital investments, from levees to wastewater treatment and from transportation to schools. The dismal state of the nation’s current infrastructure could hamper future growth.
The ways that governments allocate new funding for infrastructure projects and the ways they build, operate, and maintain those projects has contributed to the problem. New spending often flows to less valuable new construction at the expense of funding maintenance on existing infrastructure. Further hindering efficiency, the traditional process for building infrastructure decouples the initial investment—the actual building of a highway, for example—from the ongoing costs of maintaining that highway. As a result, the contractor building the highway often has little incentive to take steps to lower future operations and maintenance costs. Such inefficiencies likely contribute to falling rates of return on public capital investments. PPPs can be used for solid waste, transport (airports, bridges, ports, rail, roads, tunnels, and urban railways), tourism, and water.
The United States is a relative newcomer to PPPs. Public–private partnerships have existed worldwide at least since the time of the Roman Empire (e.g., the use of private tax and toll road collectors) and in the United States since its founding. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress authorized the use of privateers to harass the British navy. Later, much of the West was developed through a variety of PPPs, including the cross-continental railway. The production of transportation infrastructure often has been undertaken with PPPs, from the development of private toll roads and canals during the nation’s early history up to the recent Dulles Greenway—a privately financed, built, and operated toll road in northern Virginia.
Even though there is an old nineteenth-century tradition of privately provided public infrastructure and even of private tolled roads and bridges, the United States still depends almost exclusively on the government for its public transport infrastructure (with the important exception of railroads).The two-decade trend toward PPPs that has revitalized the ways that many countries provide infrastructure has gained only little traction in the United States. Whereas the United Kingdom financed $50 billion in transportation infrastructure via PPPs between 1990 and 2006, the United States, an economy more than six times as large as that of the United Kingdom, financed only approximately $10 billion during the same period.
Even with their ubiquity, there remains some ambiguity as to what exactly constitutes a PPP. . . For future articles . . . we shall focus on a . . . form of PPP that involves a greater role by the private sector in decision making and assumption of risk in the joint venture.