Road privatization finds favor

Toll roads, privately run public transit and even business-owned public schools have the strong support of Bay Area residents, according to a poll by a pro-business organization.

The poll by the Bay Area Council, a business-sponsored, public-policy advocacy organization, showed that residents are open to allowing private companies to finance improvements to roads, schools, hospitals and water-supply systems. These projects could help the cash-strapped state fund major infrastructure projects that it currently cannot afford, said Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council.

But many remain skeptical of privatization since the private investors inevitably must find a way to profit on the deal, said Rod Diridon Sr., executive director of San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute.

Diridon said that his research has shown that in general, people are open to public-private partnerships, but when they learn more specifics about the projects, they become more skeptical.

“When you ask about public-private partnerships, the average responder thinks, ‘Gee, the private people are going to come in and build it for us.’ But when they realize that there will be increased fees or some mechanism to pay back the private investment, they’re much less enthused.”

The pollsters asked 601 Bay Area residents how serious public infrastructure problems are in the region. Eighty-seven percent said they consider the problems either somewhat or very serious.

The residents were then told that public-private partnerships could “bring billions of dollars of new money to construct or rebuild infrastructure projects in the Bay Area,” and asked whether they would favor such projects to build hospitals, schools, public transit, water supply and treatment plants, recreational facilities or roads and highways.

Between 64 and 71 percent of respondents said they would favor those projects, depending on the project.

Bruce Blanning, executive director of the Professional Engineers in California government, said he wasn’t surprised to hear the poll results.

“In fact, I’m surprised that when they lead into a question by saying there will be billions of dollars of free money, that anybody would say no,” he said.

But, he said, it’s not free money, and the partnerships don’t always work out in the public’s best interest. He pointed to the case of an ill-fated toll road in Orange County that had to be bought back by taxpayers for more than $200 million.

Wunderman said that was an example of “the wrong way” to do a public-private partnership, but that done correctly, with correct government oversight, the projects can allow communities to complete projects otherwise unattainable.

kworth@examiner.com

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