Public-private partnerships are now an option to more than half the states in the nation. And as governments find themselves responsible for a growing range of project areas, like broadband, the benefit of increased resources for projects that might not happen otherwise, like broadband, is pushing the trend forward.
Once the exclusive purview of the private sector, broadband is increasingly understood as a utility or even a fundamental right of the populace. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray opined at a regional broadband conference May 9 that partnering with the private sector is the best way forward for municipal broadband in his city.
And in April, Santa Cruz, Calif., announced a partnership aimed at expanding gigabit access throughout the entire city. San Francisco’s gigabit master plan, announced in March, characterizes private partnerships as crucial.
Even traditional capital investment projects are getting more help from the private sector. Maryland's Prince George's County looked last year at using the private sector to boost local economy and build out infrastructure that keeps sustainability in mind. As the nation’s water infrastructure ages, thousands of municipalities look to the private sector for help.
Two states — Kentucky and Tennessee — passed legislation this year permitting the use of public-private partnerships in infrastructure projects. Kentucky’s law (HB 309) passed April 11, and specific regulations are required to be published by the end of the year. Broadly, the law will permit public-private partnerships as an alternate procurement option, with procurements that exceed $25 million requiring legislative approval.
Tennessee’s bill (SB 2093), signed into law April 27, will allow partnerships with private companies on mass transit projects starting Oct. 1. Rep. Charles Sargent (R-Tenn.), who was one of the bill’s sponsors, said the legislation initially would have allowed for partnerships on all transit projects, including roads and bridges, but some legislators were concerned about the introduction of toll roads and toll bridges to a state that has traditionally opposed them, and so the bill was limited to mass transit projects.
“I’m going to use Denver as an example,” Sargent said. “There’s a monorail going from the airport to downtown Denver. The city was never going to be able to afford the monorail and they did it with a public-private, and then all of the sudden, the federal government came in and put $1 billion into that project. So it’s just a way of, if there’s something that the public needs to do but is possibly not going to do for five years or eight years out, it’s a possibility that you could get private to come in and help with the project, and then do it a lot of different ways.”
The city of Nashville has an extremely limited mass transit system, Sargent said, and with the population growing like it is, it needs to keep its options open for the future. Nashville has buses, which don’t reach the suburbs, Sargent said, and a light rail that doesn’t run very often and doesn’t reach very far.
“The more you grow and grow," he said, "the roads are becoming gridlocked."
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.