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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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This project received an initial $140 million boost from funds provided by the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA). TIFIA is designed as a tool to provide federal investment in PPPs. Interestingly, Rahm Emanuel cited the program as an example of a financing tool that his Infrastructure Trust is based on. However, this is a bit misleading, as TIFIA is composed entirely of federal funds used to augment existing finances for capitol projects. Meanwhile, Emanuel’s trust is composed of $1.7 billion in funds raised from private banks leveraged against a $200 million investment by the city.

Nonetheless, the two shortcomings of this project are particularly instructive. Its primary problem was the failure to meet the initial high-shooting projections initially set out. Traffic patterns are extremely difficult to accurately anticipate: a situation not helped by the backdrop of the worldwide recession and the location of this road in a region that was particularly burdened by the foreclosure crisis. The intrinsic uncertainty of usage of public infrastructure renders it a poor focal point for private, profit-driven investment. The reality is that parks, roadways and bridges require periodic capital investment irrespective of profitability. Public entities are far more well-equipped to finance these unreliable projects for the very reason that government is not motivated by profit.

The second problem this project faced by this PPP, like so many others, was its predilection to legal wrangles. SBX was involved in legal proceedings with InTrans, the toll system provider, and a number of construction related contractors. One source speaking with TollRoadNews called the governing contract a “sue-me contract” that was “made for litigation.” Given the immense costs seen by the London Tube PPP, this should come as no surprise. These projects seem to invite costly litigation just from their sheer complexity.

Toward Sustainable Investment in Infrastructure

PPPs are purported to make additional resources available for public expenditure on capital-intensive infrastructure projects. However, the opposite tends to be the case. A report published by the Public Services International Research Unit notes: “The great majority of PPP’s rely on a stream of income from payments by government – i.e. public spending...In a context where there are political demands to cut public spending, the existence of PPP’s creates greater threats to other spending on public services. This is because PPP’s create long-term contractual rights to streams of income, and so governments are legally constrained from reducing payments to PPPs.”

Even the International Monetary Fund warns that public investment in PPPs should be subject to strict scrutiny in a July 2009 publication: “Intervention measures should be consistent with the wider fiscal policy stance, be contingent on specific circumstances, and be adequately costed and budgeted.” The IMF also argues that PPPs related to weathering the economic crisis should include a “turn off” mechanism. A green paper published by the Commission of the European Communities in April 2004 even went further, recommending against PPPs as a tool to close any budget deficits. They argue that the mechanism should be employed primarily when the private entity is providing a specific field of expertise.

After all, why should anyone trust the same racketeers who precipitated the global economic crisis to make acute investment decisions on behalf of the people? All levels of government face serious fiscal constraints stemming from a range of causes, including the ongoing recession and regressive tax policy across the board. When financiers so generously offer to open up the purse strings to invest in pet infrastructure projects, the public response ought be: “No, thank you. Instead, we are going to raise the top marginal tax rate.” That would be a far more efficient and prudent way of beginning to tackle the fiscal crises in government.

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