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The New Wall Street Racket Looting Your City, One Block at a Time

New schemes hold the public hostage to private finance.

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In the Guardian, Christian Wolmar notes that “the idea that the PPP would keep costs down has also proved fanciful. It is a recipe for disputes, which often end up in the hands of expensive lawyers. During the first contract, there is a mega dispute brewing over Tube Lines' failure to complete the resignalling of the Jubilee Line which should have been finished this month and is now set to take until the autumn, with numerous extra weekend closures. In addition, the arbiter's report says that claims involving a staggering £727m have been laid by Tube Lines, £500m of which are still outstanding.”

As bloated contractual costs and project overruns spun out of control, Metronet ultimately collapsed in 2008. A year later, the entire PPP went down with it after an arbiter refused to allow funds for the other private partner, Tube Lines, to do further renovations. The final cost to taxpayers is estimated at somewhere between 170 million and 410 million pounds, which does not account for the inconvenience of relentless service stoppages and construction delays. Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone complained at the time: “We are being asked to write a blank cheque in order to prop up failing Tube Lines. In other countries this would be called looting, here it is called the PPP.”

Orange County’s Privatized HOV Lane

Almost equal in disrepute to the London Tube fiasco was the privatization of one high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane on California’s SR-91. In the early '90s, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) proved incapable of procuring necessary funding for implementation of the new HOV using traditional revenue streams, so instead developed a private partnership to construct and manage the project, which opened December 27, 1995.

This contract included “non-compete” clauses that prevented the public from providing necessary maintenance to the adjacent free lanes. The California Department of Transportation hoped to add new lanes between SR-91 and another recently completed public toll road. These improvements would have violated the non-compete terms of the contract, though CalTrans argued there were overriding safety concerns that permitted them to proceed with the construction.

The ensuing public row served to turn opinion against the private toll lane. Ultimately, the outcry led to passage of Assembly Bill 1010, which authorized OCTA to acquire the lane for $207.5 million in 2003. California’s earliest experiment with private financing of a publicly controlled entity, like the London Tube, came crashing to a premature halt on the heels of widespread public outrage.

What is most telling is that popular frustration centered on a principal term of the contract, which was publicly available for viewing prior to approval. Once again, a common ploy of instigators of these contracts is rendering the terms so confusing as to limit public scrutiny. Meanwhile, the mainstream press tends to focus on the bottom line and avoid the esoteric legal mumbo jumbo, much to the detriment of an enlightened public.

The SDX

California, ever the epicenter of political innovation, was also the site of another one of the most significant PPP boondoggles. In this case, Australian investment group Macquerie led an assortment of banks that invested in a new expressway from San Diego to the Mexican border, beginning with the project’s commencement in 2000 and lasting until the contract expiry in 2042.

However, faced with the challenges of the housing crisis and wider economic slump, the project faced persistent toll revenue shortfalls and ultimately filed for bankruptcy last year. Meanwhile, the cost of the project jumped from $360 million to $843 million, while being delayed for over a year. In the bankruptcy proceeding, the South Bay Expressway LLC was created to administer the road and ultimately purchased by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) for $344.5 million.

 
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