March 29, 2010 | last updated May 29, 2012 6:19 pm
OTHER VOICES

Privatizing I-95 Corridor Could Be Boon To State

Over the last 10 years, our leaders in Hartford have convened dozens of panels and commissions to study and craft recommendations designed to rejuvenate Connecticut's economy. While these reports have spawned a number of great ideas, only a handful have come to fruition and none have had a dramatic, or even material impact on stemming the tide of jobs leaving Connecticut, not to mention the number of college graduates who are relocating to other states at a pace surpassed only by Alaska.

There has, however, been one positive outcome from all this diligence, and it was on display at a recent candidates' forum in Stamford that was focused on stimulating economic growth in Connecticut.

All of the participants agreed that the next administration must take decisive action to address our congested and weathered infrastructure, especially the I-95 corridor between New York and New Haven. As everyone who has studied this issue knows, modernizing that stretch of highway is a lynchpin to stimulating Connecticut's economy. It connects our state's greatest concentration of human capital to the world's greatest concentration of financial capital. Unfortunately, after everyone found common ground on the severity of the problem, the conversation then devolved into a not-so-creative debate over tolls.

Re-installing tolls on our highways is an unimaginative, 20th-century response to an enormous and complex 21st-century problem. If we are going to talk about tolls in this election, then let's have a full blown debate on the more radical idea of leasing I-95 to a private operator. But before we go and create another task force to analyze the concept, let me suggest a different approach that could accelerate the process and bring about a tangible result in the near-term.

Within six months of being sworn in, our newly elected governor (in conjunction with the transportation committee) should issue a request for expressions of interest (REI) to determine what the level of interest would be from the "infrastructure" community if Connecticut were to spin-off the New York to New Haven corridor to a public-private-partnership.

The responses we receive will tell us very quickly what the "art of the possible" is, and would spare us the anguish of watching Connecticut fall further behind more progressive states while we continue to analyze, study, and examine the problem.

We would assuredly receive numerous proposals from all of the major infrastructure players. More importantly, if we structure the REI properly, the proposals would include a number of compelling features that would provoke our leaders to take decisive action sooner rather than later.

These features could include an upfront fee to the state in the amount of between $10 billion and $20 billion. In addition, each applicant would need to consent to assuming responsibility for maintaining the roadway thereby relieving the state of an expensive and recurring obligation. The private operator would also need to enter into a services contract with DOT that would result in the state actually receiving a fee for performing maintenance services. Finally, the REI should require that all proposals include covenants to reconstruct and retrofit the most problematic portions of the outdated highway.

Is it too good to be true? Could be. But let's find out.

Public-private-partnerships have been around for almost 20 years in Europe and Asia, and now have begun to take root in the U.S. The Indiana Toll Road, San Diego Freeway and Chicago Skyway are all assets managed under PPP's. Connecticut needs to aggressively explore this option, and can easily do so by way of an REI, not another fact-finding commission.

If we pin our hopes on remediating our infrastructure through conventional, incremental means such as bonding and federal grants, we will fall further and further behind other states that have adopted more advanced playbooks. Our government leaders need to commit themselves to pursuing bold solutions that will enable Connecticut to get back in the game now, not 30 years down the road.

A senior executive for one of the top financial institutions that is a leading infrastructure investor recently shared with me his belief that privatizing the New York to New Haven corridor could accomplish in eight years what will otherwise take 25 to 30 years, and would generate more union and non-union jobs than any other initiative that Connecticut has undertaken in the last 50 years.

No one person can bring about the institutional change that needs to happen in Hartford. To provoke the magnitude of change that would allow for the privatization of our busiest highway, our next chief executive will need to be supported by a senior management team that is seasoned and adept at designing and executing progressive growth initiatives. In light of our state's serious economic condition, our next governor, whether he or she is a Democrat or Republican, should have the benefit of a new slate of constitutional officers who can provide bold, innovative counsel that obviates the need to form any more special committees.

John Paiva is chief counsel and senior vice president for corporate development at FM Facility Maintenance in Hartford. He is also the finance chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party and is exploring a run for attorney general.

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