Where Interstate 20 crosses Interstate Bob

(Photo: Aijalyn Kohler / Flickr)(Photo: Aijalyn Kohler / Flickr)

Are we approaching an intersection, where Public Street and Private Road meet? And if we are, is that intersection a confusing place in need of significant upgrading if it is to benefit the traveling public?


Public-private partnerships created to profitably build and operate/manage transportation infrastructure (i.e. roads and bridges) appear to be on the verge of raising their profile in the transportation funding debate. These PPPs, or P3s, have been around for awhile, with some significant successes and some stunning failures. But with states and the feds strapped for infrastructure cash now and in the immediate future, they may be set to make a bold move.

The basic arguments seem to fall evenly between “good thing” and “bad thing.” And indeed the answers appear to lie somewhere between those extremes. Done right we all benefit – private money makes money, private money builds transportation infrastructure that public money can’t be found to build and the public gets to ride on it, debt doesn’t get deeper and so on. On the other side can be some contract arrangements put in place to guarantee private investors their profit that can leave the public – what’s a nice word for this? – disadvantaged.

As this overview from The Atlantic Cities shows, we seem to be at a point where the driving public and the driving commercial sector can benefit from privately funding road projects IF we get it right. IF. It’s the investors looking for every edge to make money talking to the public agency looking for maximum public benefit. Not square pegs and round holes, but tricky deals nevertheless.

Private money got a major nod in MAP-21, and next year’s reauthorization may well expand its opportunities; this is something the Obama administration is eager to push and support.

This is also one of those factors that I’d suggest we keep a close eye on. Reauthorization legislation negotiations and discussions will be all jargon and political speak and we may well find any bill, when finalized, contains clauses we didn’t suspect would be there, doing things we didn’t expect to see done, changing the game without letting the players get a word in edgewise.

P3s may be one such clause. Keep up with the P3 debate and you may be able to put some pressure on your Congressional delegation before that happens.