Investing in Infrastructure: not all partnerships are created equally

We all know that investments are needed to fix our crumbling infrastructure – to build better roads and bridges, and drive improvements in public transportation. So, does it matter how they get built? 

This is a pressing question as the new presidential administration has pointed to infrastructure investment as one of its priorities, with private industry playing a key role. Because when it comes to Public Private Partnerships the devil is in the details, and what’s at stake is the democratic governance of our cities, towns and land.

More and more in recent years politicians have turned towards Public Private Partnerships, also called P3s, as the way to get around chronic funding gaps that are the result of years of disinvestment. Rather than contend with the deficit, politicians have turned to P3s as a quick fix – a way to get an influx of cash up front, but at the cost of public control, transparency and often the long-term interests of their constituents.

P3s broadly refer to the use of private capital to finance public projects, but the reality is that the term has become a catch-all that can hide enormous differences. Government has always hired private companies to build public infrastructure like roads and buildings, so what makes this different? As explained in a recent Guide to Understanding and Evaluating Infrastructure Public Private Partnership released by In The Public Interest, infrastructure projects typically have five phases:

  1. Design
  2. Build (construction)
  3. Financing
  4. Operation
  5. Maintenance

Traditionally, contractors have only been involved in the design and build parts of a project, but public private partnerships have come to be understood as a process in which all five parts of a project are privatized.

That shift takes democratic control of our public services away and gives it to private companies. So how can we tell if a P3 is a win-win agreement for the private company and for the public? According to In The Public Interest there are key questions that stakeholders can ask like “What are the long-term impacts on our city’s budget? How many jobs will be created, will they be local, and what will the wages and benefits be?” to ensure transparency and accountability, and that the communities’ needs are met. Download the guide for the full list of questions.