Sunday, February 10, 2013

United They Rule = Private Public Perils

By Helen Gerhardt

Governor Corbett announced scant details of his transportation plan on February 5th. Most eyes are drawn to the lowball figure of $40 million for all mass transit across all of Pennsylvania this year when that's the estimated amount needed to bring just SEPTA back to speed over in Philly. Corbett may well profit from the panic and confusion that has been generated in some quarters as transit agencies and advocates try to figure out how that money would be distributed and where it would come from - the lifting of the cap on the gas tax will follow old patterns of plunge as auto fuel efficiency increases. That's why we're in shortfall right now. 

Corbett has several times in the past declared that the funding of any transportation plan will probably be generated at least partially through private-public partnerships, as they have now been enabled by Act 88, passed in 2012 with none of the fanfare and trumpets invited by the governor for the release of this current proposal. The report of Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, headed up by the redoubtable Secretary of Transportation, Barry Schoch, states that:  
Public-private partnerships . (PPPs) are contractual arrangements in which a private business teams with government to accelerate the maintenance, improvement, and expansion of roads, bridges, or other transportation infrastructure. The governmental entity—either state or local—owns the asset or facility, but contracts with a private entity to develop, construct, manage, operate, or finance a given project. Public-private partnerships create efficiencies, save costs, shorten construction timelines, and bring private investment into transportation. “ (from p 62-63)

But no nitty-gritty details of such how such partnerships might be employed were released on February 5th, only the bluff bullet point resolution to: "Create a Public Private Partnership (P3) office to oversee the new public/private partnership law."

Public-private partnerships can indeed result in highly productive and creative collaborations for Transit Oriented Development and for incorporation of technological advances as exemplified by the Oyster cards used in London for fare and data collection. But policy analysts and transportation advocates agree that for such partnerships to truly serve the public, rigorous oversight by executive branches of project evaluation, community input on selection of high-impact projects, bidding transparency and contract negotiation are all crucial. 

Yet Governor Corbett's record has raised concerns that he has been a consistent ally and financial beneficiary of the corporate interests that most stand to benefit from such consequential processes. And where privatization is concerned, the Governor's record seems to make clear whose money calls his shots: 
Gov. Tom Corbett's new government privatization task force is studded with major political donors and executives from companies that could see financial gain if the state spins off government services to the private sector."…“The 24 members of the panel, formally known as the Governor's Advisory Council on Privatization and Innovation, have donated millions of dollars to Republican Corbett's past campaigns. And its chairman, attorney John A. Barbour, heads a law firm with state contracts. (John L. Micek, Call Harrisburg Bureau)
That hefty hitting case in point, our own “Jack” Barbour chief executive officer, managing director, and board chair of the law and government relations firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC based here in Pittsburgh has represented developers, lenders, and equity participants in complex commercial and real estate transactions across the nation. Barbour is a member of the board of directors of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and member of the Pennsylvania Business Council Policy Roundtable. Nothing wrong with any of that if he represented some balance within a range of interests and stakeholders - in fact, because so many of his clients have been involved in such a range of such partnerships, it could be highly valuable to have someone of his experience and expertise on the Council.  

But Barbour was also co-chair of the Tom Corbett for Governor Committee and Co-chair of Governor Tom Corbett's Transition Team. If a full seventy percent of the Governor's Advisory Council on Privatization and Innovation did not consist of Corbett donors, if so many of the chosen ones did not stand to directly profit from privatization across a wide range of fields, perhaps the potential for conflict of interest would not be so alarming. 

But concerns of outright corruption were spotlighted in January by the news that Corbett only belatedly reported the gift of a costly vacation from John Moran, head of Moran Industries, a Northumberland County logistics company specializing in trucking, rail, and warehouse facilities. Yes, Corbett had appointed Moran to that same Council on privatization.Yes, Moran is also listed as contributing $45,750 and another $38,000 in donated transportation service.

As a result of such "pay to play" politics, most of us know that many voters express fears of disenfranchisement, and doubts of their ability to contribute meaningful input or impact on the decisions that will most affect their lives .  

In future posts, as Bram has room here at the Comet, I'll provide examples of public-private partnerships across a range of public infrastructures and services that have demonstrated the validity of such fears and doubts, again and again and again, across these many United States. 

Helen Gerhardt is Community Organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit:

1 comment:

  1. P3's can, all thing being equal, be good. Public officials at local levels should approach the idea of these partnerships carefully and from the right perspective, and should protect public interests in negotiating those deals... even as they try to score big numbers for the sake of their budgets. I see nothing to suggest the Commonwealth is fixed to provide the kind of oversight necessary to help strike a balance between budgets and public interests.