Tag: public-private partnership

No NYT, the Public Doesn’t Need to ‘Pay and Pay’ for Private Infrastructure

The Trump administration’s proposal to repair and expand America’s roads, bridges, ports and airports includes the expanded use of public-private partnerships (P3s). Under P3s, state and local governments award franchises to private companies that agree to pay for and manage the infrastructure in exchange for the companies receiving toll payments from future users. A number of P3 projects currently operate in the United States, and they are common in other developed nations.

Despite the growing embrace of these projects by policymakers around the world, the Trump proposal is being met with skepticism. For example, the New York Times dropped this article last week ahead of Trump administration efforts to promote the proposal. According to the article, “experts agree” that “there is little hard evidence” that such projects produce long-term benefits to the public as compared to traditional government-provided infrastructure. (That “agreement” came as news to many transportation experts.)

At heart, the article charges that P3 programs are “win/no lose” proposals for the private firms: if the projects prove popular, the firms profit—sometimes handsomely, to the detriment of consumers. But if the new infrastructure doesn’t get many toll-paying users, the financial losses from the projects fall on taxpayers.

To illustrate this, the NYT cites California State Route 91, one of the first P3s in the United States. Initially intended to reduce congestion, the project awarded a private company the right to build and operate a special four-lane toll road in the middle of the highway. The road was “congestion priced,” meaning the tolls fluctuated in order to limit use just enough to guarantee the free flow of traffic.

The original lease on the road included a noncompete clause that limited the state’s ability to add additional lanes to the non-P3 part of SR-91 or to build parallel infrastructure. This resulted in heavy congestion on the old lanes, pushing motorists onto the toll lanes and producing a financial windfall for the toll company. That ultimately prompted Orange County to buy out the toll company for $207 million in 2003.

However, the SR-91 problem is not inherent to P3s. It arose as a result of the conditions under which the franchise was arranged. Traditionally, P3s have been awarded through negotiations between private companies and transportation authorities, leading to high initial private investments and uncertainty about demand for the road. That risk, in turn, encourages toll road companies to want protections like the noncompete clause.

Interplanetary Greatness Conservatism

My Washington Examiner column this week is on the final flight of the Space Shuttle, and what looks to be the withering away of the manned space program. In 2004, President Bush announced plans for a moonbase and an eventual Mars mission. But last year President Obama effectively cancelled the moonbase, and has exhibited little desire to liberate Mars. That’s good news, I argue:

“We are retiring the shuttle in favor of nothing,” Michael Griffin, Bush’s NASA administrator, wailed to the Washington Post recently.

Here, as usual, “nothing” gets a bad rap. I’ll be “in favor of nothing” until the advocates of federally funded spaceflight can come up with an argument for it that doesn’t make me spray coffee out my nose.

NASA’s Griffin failed that test in 2005, when he gave an interview to the Washington Post insisting it was essential that “Western values” accompany those who eventually “colonize the solar system,” because “we know the kind of society we would get if you, for example, carry Soviet values. That means you want a gulag on Mars. Is that what you’re looking for?”

Well … is it, punk?

When you strip away the few half-hearted “practical” arguments space partisans offer (it turns out that the space program didn’t even give us TANG, by the way) you’re mostly left with sentimental piffle. Listening to some of them, I’m half-tempted to mount a First Amendment challenge to the space program as an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

A 2008 report from MIT on “The Future of Human Spaceflight” argued that federal funding was justified as a means to promote “an expansion of human experience, bringing people into new places, situations and environments, expanding and redefining what it means to be human.” Those are *scientists* making that argument. But if your best explanation for why spaceflight is a public good gets into “sweet mystery of life” territory, then maybe you don’t have a very good argument for public funding.

Unfortunately, President Obama didn’t actually kill funding for human spaceflight. We’re now embarked on a public-private partnership, with NASA dollars flowing to companies like Space X. In fact, Obama has publicly pledged to seek slight increases in NASA’s budget.

But whether it’s done via a “government-business partnership” or not, there’s no reason we should be funding manned space exploration at all.

This is another thing President Eisenhower got right, incidentally:

he “would not be willing,” he said, “to spend tax money to send a man around the moon … There is such a thing as common sense,” he said, “even in research.” A moon project would be just “a stunt.”

But, since federally funded human spaceflight is a massive, “heroic,” allegedly inspiring but ultimately senseless government crusade, it’s no surprise, I guess, that neoconservatives love it. And nobody loves it more than Charles Krauthammer. Here he is in 2007, waxing rhapsodic about “the music of the spheres.”:

You should feel something when our little species succeeds in establishing new life in a void that for all eternity had been the province of the gods. If you don’t feel that, you are—don’t take this personally—deaf to the music of our time.

Look up, Krauthammer urged spacefans in 2009, after it had become clear that Barack Obama lacked “Kennedy’s enthusiasm” to boldly go, etc. “That is the moon,” Krauthammer declared, and “for the first time in history,” it had become “a nightly rebuke.” This is the burden of the Interplanetary Greatness Conservative: the moon—the very moon!—mocks you.

Personally, I’m deaf to “the music of the spheres.” But I’m all for the efforts of private entrepreneurs who can hear it. If people want to advance space exploration on their own dime and at their own risk, more power to them. And the government should neither help nor hinder them.