One of the biggest debates to come as the United States grapples with its infrastructure problems is whether to rebuild as a purely public function–as we have done all along, or whether public/private partnerships might be the wave of the future. This Christian Science Monitor article cites the enthusiasm Canada has for public/private partnerships. But it’s short on criticism of PPPs as well.
The biggest attempt at a PPP in the U.S. to date, the Trans Texas Corridor, went down in flames last year thanks to a ragged but persistent coalition of citizens–farmers who didn’t want to pay tolls to a Spanish company for the right to move agricultural products to market, NIMBY environmentalists who don’t like any development, and your occasional Austin activist goat roper.
But the debate over PPPs on a national scale is far from over. Given the fractious political climate we face today, this may be the only way to get things done. But in some ways PPPs resemble what we’ve had to do in Iraq: hiring civilian security contractors at $150,000 a year to do the job that $20,000 a year soldiers ought to be doing. Politicians have bled manpower out of the military for 20 years and now we’re paying the price.
Likewise, political posturing has made it impossible to raise the federal fuels tax, or even index it for inflation. As a result we may soon be paying tolls to private, international construction consortiums that amount to five or ten times more than what we’d have to pay if we’d financed our transportation infrastructure equitably through gas taxes. This may be reality, but I think it says something disturbing about us as a nation if we can no longer muster the political will to build our own roads as a collective endeavor.