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Take the Public-Private Road to Efficiency

February 20, 2013 in Economics

By Chris Edwards

Chris Edwards

In his State of the Union address, President Obama laid out an array of new spending proposals, including a $50 billion plan for highways, bridges and other projects. He wants to attract “private capital” for the plan, but the problem is that federal planners would remain in control of the allocations.

America’s transportation facilities need to be continually repaired and rebuilt, but decisions about where and when should not be made in Washington. Outside of the United States, the global trend is to partly or fully privatize infrastructure, which not only attracts private capital but ensures that it goes toward high-return projects. In many cases, infrastructure companies can raise private funds, construct new bridges or highway lanes, and charge drivers directly for their use. In the U.S., state governments play an important role, but taxpayers don’t need the federal government trying to micromanage it.

Historically, infrastructure in America was frequently provided by the private sector. In the 19th century, more than 2,000 turnpike companies built thousands of miles of toll roads. The great majority of America’s vast railroad system was built without federal subsidies, and most urban rail and bus services were originally private.

American highways and bridges need repair. So does the way government approaches the job.”

The 20th-century takeover of private infrastructure by governments (in the U.S. and abroad) pushed up costs and reduced innovation. Fortunately, some governments have started to reverse course. Hundreds of billions of dollars of railways, highways, seaports, airports and other assets have been partly or fully privatized in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere, but America lags behind.

Partial privatization through public-private partnerships has become a major source of infrastructure investment in Canada and Australia, among other countries. Such partnerships improve on traditional government contracting by shifting elements of funding, management, maintenance, operations and financial risks to private businesses.

With public-private partnerships and full privatization, investment is less likely to flow to uneconomical projects that are chosen for political or ideological reasons. Private infrastructure is also more likely than government projects to be completed on-time and on-budget.

The newsletter “Public Works Financing” reports that only one of the top 38 global firms doing transportation privatization is U.S.-based (Fluor, FLR -1.66% with headquarters in Irving, Texas). Of the guide’s 726 private and public-private projects from all around the world, just 28 are in the U.S.

Nonetheless, some U.S. states have moved ahead with private infrastructure. Several projects …read more
Source: OP-EDS

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