A private problem

By on February 6, 2014

Pennsylvania has over 25,000 state-owned bridges. We’re ranked third in the nation for the total number of bridges in a state, but we lead the nation in bridges that are “structurally deficient.” At this time, 5,543 of our bridges are unsafe, and that number will only rise, as the average bridge in PA is more than 50 years old.

In response to this challenge, Governor Corbett’s administration, at midnight on Jan. 20, announced a plan for a 40-year contract to privatize the repair, rebuilding, and replacement of PA’s troubled bridges. When this step was announced, the word “privatize” was purposely omitted. PennDOT instead chose to call it a “public-private partnership,” or a PPP, or a P3 – pick your favorite. This marketing decision isn’t hard to understand, of course. As privatization of everything from prisons to schools to the surveillance of Americans in the name of national security becomes more well-known, so has increased the public’s suspicions about the wisdom of privatization.

The more we come to understand what privatization entails, the less excited people are at the prospect of not having any recourse should they not like how things are going – you can’t vote a CEO out of office if he or she does a lousy job – and having to shoulder more of the expense while seeing very little of the profits. Pennsylvanians, in particular, are familiar with this dynamic as gas and oil companies who set up shop in PA to unearth our natural gas will pay no taxes, they employ very few Pennsylvanians, and they take their profits home to other states.

Oh, and let’s not forget that private business is just that – private. Public right-to-know laws don’t extend to private corporations’ shenanigans, so what happens if we want to know how the bridge projects are going and the corporations don’t want to tell us? That’s right. They can say “No comment,” and the public is powerless to demand the information.

So what exactly is a public-private partnership, as the Corbett administration has crafted it? Well, the official definition of this kind of agreement is “a government service or private business venture which is funded and operated through a partnership of government and one or more private sector companies.” Sounds simple enough, right? Sure. But remember, “government” means taxpayers, because taxpayers fund the government. So the taxpayers are chipping in big for the bridges’ rehab, even though they’ll have no say in who does the work, what it costs, when it has to be finished, and which bridges get fixed first.

And “private sector companies” includes not just the companies who get to design and build the bridges, but the consultants whom the state hires to guide the process. Such consultants are paid a “success fee,” which means that if the corporations make a profit, so does the consultant. Hard to imagine a consultant advising against privatization or not recommending that the corporations be given just about everything they ask for, isn’t it? And when the corporations ask for what’s known as “adverse-action rights,” which forces the taxpayers to pay them should anything happen that reduces their profits, will a consultant who shares in that no-lose scenario ever say it’s not a great idea?

Earlier in January, when the PA House was considering the passage of HB3 (the bill that approved this scheme), Steven Santarsiero, a Democratic rep from Bucks County, correctly stated that “It’s a big mistake to cede that authority to an unelected commission. This General Assembly should be able to address projects on a case-by-case basis, and make a thorough and fair decision on each application, as they come forward.”

His concern stemmed from, among other things, the fact that this privatized scheme will only cover 15 percent of the state’s highway funding needs. And he, unlike Governor Corbett, was remembering that PA’s infrastructure problem includes roads and public transit systems, too, the maintenance of which has been undermined by the mismanagement of transportation funds that left the state with a $3.5B deficit.

So that’s the history of the problem. But what about the future? Forty years is a very long time, and lots of things that the contracts signed now don’t cover could – and will – happen. Everything from changes in population and traffic patterns to changes in bridge construction technology could affect the cost of projects down the road (pardon the expression), and might reduce the corporations’ profits. Will they decide to build an unnecessary bridge to fatten their paycheck or to not use new technology, just to save money? Will they let a bridge in dire need sit untouched so that they can utilize the new materials on another, bigger project and let the public pick up the increased tab? Go ahead. Guess. We’ll wait.

Privatization is a popular idea with those who think the government is too big and too powerful. It’s also popular with people who don’t believe government can create jobs and who think everything should be a for-profit venture. These are the same people telling heart-wrenching – but completely false – stories about health insurance premiums rising due to Obamacare, who want to turn Social Security into a windfall for Wall Street when we all have to become investors in order to have anything saved for retirement, and who think the “free market” can solve any problem.

They don’t flinch when shown the statistics on increased incarcerations and longer sentences in states where prisons have been privatized, they don’t feel bad when children come out on the short end of the stick in poorly-run, privately-managed charter schools, and they don’t mind that private contractors are raking in billions every time the U.S. decides to flex its military muscle, even though soldiers’ families are forced to use SNAP cards just to keep food on the table.

So what do the proponents of privatization care about? Go ahead. Guess. We’ll wait.

Don LeVasseur and Laurie Ulrich Fuller host The Making Sense Show, a live radio show produced in Lititz. The recorded podcast and blog can be found at themakingsenseshow.com.

Comments can be e-mailed to comments@themakingsenseshow.com.

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