President Trump and his advisors have identified recruiting private firms as active participants as one solution to the choking shortage of money to finance critical infrastructure needs. He’s right, but maximizing the private sector’s impact will require the administration to think outside the box.
If properly structured, public-private partnerships could tap into billions of dollars of private capital hungering for low-risk investment opportunities that offer decent returns. Piles of dough would be deposited on the front steps of city halls and state houses with the steely hand of the private sector at the tiller, minimizing the need for scarce taxpayer dollars to get infrastructure projects underway.
This means designing such partnerships as overtly commercial enterprises able to demonstrate reasonable prospects for earning reliable income streams large enough to pay consistent returns to their private investors. Not a simple challenge to be sure. But scarcely one that’s beyond the capabilities of Wall Street’s more innovative investment bankers.
Making this work on a sufficiently large scale would require significant rethinking of how government deals with private firms (which may be overdue anyway), since some of these partnerships may require user charges to generate the necessary income streams. If approached creatively, this could actually enhance the likelihood that the activities of these partnerships would meet environmental goals and other regulatory mandates that serve the public interest.
In many jurisdictions, the public may not sit still for turning over the responsibility to operate an infrastructure project to the private sector because they know a business’ natural instinct is to maximize profits. Government could set up some sort of regulatory commission to oversee the project like they do for utility companies. But a better approach might be to set up an independent commercial corporation fully funded by user fees to build, own, and operate the infrastructure asset so taxpayers can participate in any upside from the project.
The state or local government could solicit bids from private investors to buy shares of equity ownership in return for annual dividends paid by the corporation. That brings private equity capital to the corporate balance sheet, reducing the amount of debt capital it has to issue.
In theory, government’s incentive is to offer the most service for the lowest cost. Private investors, on the other hand, have the opposite incentive: to charge the highest user fees the market can bear while providing the least service it can get away with.
But a second class of private investors would likely purchase equity shares in the enterprise mainly because they have a vested interest in assuring better roadways or other transportation infrastructure in the area. These investors might be private utility companies, local banks, and other local firms whose future revenue growth depends heavily on rising levels of economic activity. This class of owners would push for user fees that make sense from a financial standpoint and service levels that meet public needs in a financially responsible manner.
This model may be a reliable way to ensure that, for example, the original cost of every facility is evaluated on a lifecycle basis so customers and operators alike don’t wind up being confronted by expensive ongoing maintenance nightmares. There would also be the certainty of long-term financial commitments so taxpayers never have to deal with orphaned facilities displaced by disruptive technologies such as autonomous ride sharing vehicles.
This model holds owners responsible for sound asset management in a clear and unambiguous way. Opportunities for abuse by limited-life warranties, guarantees written by “paper companies” that melt into the woodwork when push comes to shove, and the kind of multi-party finger pointing that only ends up enriching the legal profession would be minimized. These realities are unlikely to be lost on the relevant parties.
Alternative models based on elaborate legislative mandates might accomplish the same thing. That is, if you believe the necessary legislation could be passed without being riddled with compromises, trade-offs, escape clauses and weasel language.
originally published: April 15, 2017