Like it or not, the tenuous marriage of business and government is the new normal. The salad days of massive federal investment in public services are long gone. The most recent surface-transportation measure to pass Congress, clocking in at $105 billion, didn't even make it past the halfway mark in terms of keeping pace with maintenance needs for the next five years. Absent a steady influx of taxpayer funding to build highways and transit systems, state governments are increasingly looking for help from the business world.
Is the United States ready to make the shift from the Eisenhower-era national highway network—in which the public owns the roads and highways it supports with tax dollars—to a partially private, profit-based system that invites partners from Wall Street and even other countries?
The benefits of such a shift are rooted deeply in the tenets of capitalism, if not public works. Businesses looking for new markets have struck a gold mine of need, if they can respond to it, in the country's crumbling infrastructure. If market-based motives operate as capitalism dictates, the private sector should be able come up with new and innovative ways to solve complex traffic problems at a lower cost for a city or state. The disadvantages lie in the public's potential lack of access to a needed utility. If private companies run the roads, it's possible that those who are able to pay more would get better access because they could assume the higher cost of tolls.
In this week's National Journal cover story, Fawn Johnson discusses the benefits and drawbacks of private-public partnerships. In the video above, go behind the story with the author herself.