American Economic Highway: More Onramps, Less Roadblocks

01/13/2011 12:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our country faces astounding infrastructure needs. The broken levies of New Orleans, collapsed bridge in Minneapolis, power outages in the Northeast are symptomatic. Nearly every governor and mayor -- Democrat or Republican -- is pressing for more investment.

In a time of budgetary crisis, public officials -- and nearly everyone else -- are pushing for targeted merit-based projects. We are hearing increasingly about public-private-partnerships (P3s) as a way of doing more with less.

P3s are a lightening rod issue. For some a silver bullet. For others municipal hemlock.

However, advocates and opponents have found an untraditional way of shouting at and talking past one another, rather than engage in a grounded adult conversation. In a rush to seem more reasonable and knowledgeable than one's opponents, everyone now promotes "good, accountable, transparent" P3 -- friends and foes alike.

It would be difficult to distinguish what even the most extreme opponents and champions see as model P3s.

(1) Ones that learn from previous mistakes.

(2) P3s that don't sell the farm on cheap.

(3) Projects that produce real value for the money rather than budget gimmickry.

(4) Contracts that don't make bankers wealthy at the expense of tolls paid by future generations.

(5) Agreements made in the light of day, rather than in the castles supposedly inhabited by governors and mayors.

(6) Ones chosen on merit rather than political ties.

You'd have to be an opponent of apple pie, motherhood and the American Way to take issue with any of it.

And yet, something is at stake in how we finance, design, construct and carry-out projects.

At their heart, P3s promise to move away from writing large government checks for much-needed projects and toward using smaller amounts of public money as honey to attract private sector coinvestors. The ability to invest in essential projects that can help us grow out of our crisis in a time of public budgetary crisis is what makes P3s garner increasingly bipartisan support among public officials. This mode of carrying out projects is not simply a tax-induced drain, we are talking about investments.

Rather than build our consensus around "good government" language, we should instead forge agreement on more important matters:

(1) What projects do we need to fund;

(2) Why do we think they're worth the money;

(3) What do these projects get us today on the job front and tomorrow on the competitiveness front;

(4) Are projects going to add onramps to the American Economic Highway, add lanes, remove roadblocks:

(5) Who benefits from projects today and who tightens their belt for now in hope of something more tomorrow; etc.