A rocky road: how can we afford to fix our aging highways and bridges?

Author:Rodd, Scott

In late October, before a restless crowd in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, then-candidate Donald Trump laid out the closing argument of his campaign.

"What follows is my 100-day action plan to make America great again," he declared, enumerating legislative and executive actions that were punctuated by applause from the crowd.

His agenda rested on the familiar pillars of his campaign--building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, renegotiating trade deals and repealing the Affordable Care Act. It also touched on his ambitious infrastructure proposal, the "American Energy and Infrastructure Act."

"[The plan] leverages public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives, to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over 10 years," Trump said. "Our infrastructure is in such trouble ... we will fix that."

The following week, two of Trump's campaign advisers published a white paper providing additional details on the trillion-dollar plan. The paper largely focused on tax breaks for private investors who put their money toward infrastructure projects. The term "public-private partnerships," however, appeared only twice.

Broadly speaking, public-private partnerships, known as P3s, are agreements in which a private-sector party provides a service that is traditionally delivered by a public agency. In terms of infrastructure, a private partner typically assumes significant responsibility and risk over a project's design, construction or operation.

As the Trump administration hammers out the fine print of its proposal, it may find willing partners at the state level, as legislatures across the country show increased interest in P3s. Private investors and infrastructure associations also appear excited about the prospect.

"We don't know the exact contours of the plan, or the exact emphasis he's going to put on P3s," says Pat Jones, CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. "[But] the very fact that he's speaking about it raises the level of debate and allows a lot of players that have been standing on the sidelines to come to the fore."

Public-private partnerships, however, have been responsible for only a small number of infrastructure projects in the last three decades. Less than 1 percent of spending on highways nationwide, for example, came from P3s in the last 25 years, and a number of these highway projects hit stumbling blocks.

As Trump pushes for private funding to support his $1 trillion infrastructure plan, the exact role--and effectiveness--of P3s in a large-scale, nationwide infrastructure plan remains unclear.

Enthusiasm in the States

States are ready to use P3s to finance transportation projects that typically have been underwritten by federal, state and local governments....

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