In 2008, a proposal by then Governor Ed Rendell to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike for 75 years to a Spanish-U.S. consortium for $12.8 billion gained no traction with lawmakers. The privatization effort was an attempt to come up with funding alternatives to pay for mounting road, bridge and mass transit costs.
Four years later, the legislature has approved and Governor Tom Corbett has signed House Bill 3 that's aimed at creating public-private partnerships (P3's).
"Pennsylvania has the most deficient bridges in the country," said Representative Rick Geist (R-Blair), chairman of the House Transportation Committee and sponsor of HB 3. " We have more than all the states that surround us and all of New England combined. We have over 8,000 miles of road in Pennsylvania that must be rebuilt. It can't be repaved."
Geist believes that public-private partnerships can be an answer to the high cost of infrastructure repair and replacement. "I think China is doing one of these [P3's] a day in the most communistic [sic] country in the world, and we have a free enterprise economy in Pennsylvania and we haven't done one yet."
The Republican lawmaker said there needs to be the "political will" to get these partnerships done, which he said will be very good for the economy. "It puts your engineers to work, it puts your construction trades people to work, contractors," Geist said. "A P3 project makes a huge amount of sense and Pennsylvania is a state that's ripe for large projects."
The new law creates a Public Private Transportation Partnership Board to be chaired by the Transportation Secretary with one member each appointed by the governor and the leaders of the four legislative caucuses. The panel would approve proposed P3's. Geist believes the quality of construction would improve.
"If you have a 75-year concession on a project, you're not going to build a 40-year bridge. You're going to build the project out for the life of the concession, and all those projects include total maintenance," Geist said. "Those projects then go off-line, they're private, and we don't have to spend liquid fuels monies, that we don't have, maintaining them."
Geist said these partnerships can also address the problem of highway congestion such as on the Parkway East (Interstate 376) in the Pittsburgh area. He said a private company could build toll lanes on the parkway.
"Use an intelligent highway system to keep traffic on the toll lanes moving at 60 miles per hour and you're still going to have a free lane," Geist said. "With time of day pricing and the ability to regulate the cost of running in those lanes, you'll have huge congestion mitigation."
Geist said he thinks enough motorists will be willing to pay to use toll lanes and zip into downtown Pittsburgh while others are sitting in traffic in the free lanes.