Private Roads Still Need Public Money

Public-Private Transportation Act has been instrumental in the construction of highways in Northern Virginia, but may be loosing credibility.

GOV.-ELECT Bob McDonnell's transportation plan includes speculative components that may -- or may not -- build highways in Virginia. But the Republican does promise to emphasize one existing program that has worked well for the state in the past.

The Public-Private Transportation Act has been instrumental in the construction of highways in Northern Virginia, Richmond and the Southwest. Projects now under way include the addition of high-occupancy toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and a new transit line to Dulles International Airport.

The program, however, is in danger of losing credibility with the highway construction firms whose confidence is crucial to its success. Since 2002, five PPTA projects have been canceled or withdrawn, including the Hampton Roads third crossing and U.S. 460.

"There are two Ps in PPTA and one of them has no money," said Jeff Southard, executive vice president of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance.

Most public-private partnerships can't work without a public investment. That truth is most vividly apparent in the case of U.S. 460. The project is likely to cost roughly $2.5 billion, with the state share falling between $500 million and $1 billion.

The Virginia Department of Transportation canceled its review of two bids this summer after the agency's six-year highway budget shrank by more than $3 billion in just over a year. VDOT had spent $2.5 million on a feasibility study, but the agency wasn't the only entity to lose money on the deal.

The two construction firms had spent comparable sums preparing bids. A third company also invested manpower and resources into a proposal but withdrew earlier after concluding that the project wasn't financially feasible.

A few public-private partnerships are theoretically possible without the state sharing the cost. VDOT specifically requested bids on improvements to the Midtown and Downtown tunnels that assumed no state investment.

It received a single nibble. A review of the proposal by a group that includes the Australian firm Macquarie Investment Holdings Inc. and its construction partner Skanska has been plodding along for months. The biggest obstacle: Without state funds, the project could result in tolls of $2 to $3 for a one-way trip.

Leaders in Norfolk and Portsmouth have legitimate concerns about the economic impact to their cities and to low-income and military workers whose jobs may not allow them to adjust their schedules to avoid the heaviest tolls.

But the real problem is that state officials, McDonnell included, have for years implied that public-private partnerships will magically build roads, bridges and tunnels without pain.

They rarely utter the word "tolls," and thus they have created unrealistic expectations that now impede progress on the very partnerships they espouse.

Unless the state starts taking its own responsibilities more seriously, private firms will be leery of making up-front investments to develop innovative plans that could solve some of Virginia's most difficult transportation tangles. Nationally, financial markets and investors are growing more reluctant to capitalize projects unless governments have a tangible stake in the outcome.

McDonnell has promised to make U.S. 460 his top priority. That's a worthy goal, but it's also an extraordinarily difficult one to accomplish. If he is to have any chance at success, he must accept the reality now that there are two Ps in PPTA.