Voices

Fire sale

Why not let investors have a try at things the government can't handle?

Issue: "Tough love," Aug. 18, 2007

It is, I guess, the most natural thing in the world, following the collapse of the big Mississippi River bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., for folks across the country to start calling for a massive public investment in the repair and possible replacement of our highway system-and maybe other parts of the infrastructure as well.

But maybe that's just throwing good money after bad. Maybe what we ought to do instead is what you do when the car you've been driving for half a dozen years starts demanding more and more expensive repairs. "I've spent about enough on this clunker," you say. "I think it's time to sell it."

Time to unload your problems and pass them on to someone else. But typically you tend to think: "Who on earth would ever actually pay me to unload my problems? Who would ever want to spend money on this pile of junk?"

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And, as the old saying goes, if you really think there is someone like that, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you. Or maybe a bridge lying right now in the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Anybody want to buy it?

The surprising answer is that for every collapsed bridge and every pot-holed stretch of highway in the United States, there is almost certainly a buyer waiting in the wings. There is someone out there who thinks he can make a profit on your ruins. All he asks is permission to put up a toll booth (either electronic or the old-fashioned kind) so he can collect your fare.

Indeed, Steven Malanga reported in The Wall Street Journal last week that "a few states and cities are now creatively turning to the private sector for help. They are partnering with private investors to build from scratch new toll roads, bridges, and other infrastructure that the private owners-not government-will finance and operate. A few cash-strapped cities and states are also replenishing their transportation trust funds-so that they can pour more money into repair and maintenance-by auctioning off existing toll roads and bridges to private operators, who are bidding far more for these assets than most experts would have predicted."

For example, the state of Indiana last year auctioned off the Indiana Toll Road. Experts expected to get about $1.8 billion for the facility, but ended up getting more than twice that amount-$3.85 billion. The city of Chicago expected to get $900 million for its southside Skyway, but got $1.8 billion. Now Mayor Richard Daley is checking out the possibility of selling Midway Airport as well.

No one should pretend, of course, that such a proposal is a panacea. The buyers of these enormously costly facilities will need to build a trustworthy track record of their own. They'll have to show that they can keep the bridges and highways they buy in good repair. But they have a similarly enormous motivation for doing so-for if they don't, drivers will simply choose some other route. The only reason toll roads work is that they get you there faster.

The real point of all this, however, is not about bridges and roads. The bridges and roads in this case are simply a metaphor. The issue is instead about how folks should respond when government demonstrates it doesn't have a clue how to handle the important facets of our lives that have become so badly broken.

That includes a shattered educational system. It includes a retirement program in disastrous fiscal imbalance. It includes a postal system in perpetual crisis. It includes an air traffic control system called scary even by its own staff.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that there are buyers out there ready to pay a decent price to take charge of all this junk. Maybe it's time for one big national fire sale. And afterwards, we might well look back and call the Minnesota bridge collapse-even with a few lives tragically lost-a blessing in disguise.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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