Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Caution on public-private partnerships

Public-private partnerships have been in vogue in the arts, education, and other facets of civic life for a while, and now they're coming to transit projects (The Planning Report, 7/8).

I suppose PPP sound appealing to the American ear, conditioned by corporate media to the couplet 'Private Good/Government Bad.'

But the public sector exists for solid economic and political reasons, no finer an example of which being the delivery of transit service.

Which is to say patterns and levels of service are critical determinants of urban form and function as well as civic life, and therefore there is an overriding public interest in planning, funding and operating transit systems.

So the prospect of public-private transit projects causes me to look askance. What we don't want is a situation in which partnership becomes dependence, where the community comes to rely so completely on a corporation for transit that the relationship is ripe for abuse.

The scenarios are easy to imagine -- profit margins are too small, so the private partner demands higher fares, or reduces services, or locks out public employee unions, or demands a taxpayer bailout or buyout. The public agency becomes dependent on corporate partners for funding and achievements, and all bets are off.

Just look to Wall Street for examples of powerful private interests working to privatize profit and socialize loss. So let's exercise caution and include safeguards when giving corporations roles in transit systems.

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