Tag Archives: Public private partnerships

Juggling Risk on Interstate 66

i66by James A. Bacon

The specter of the botched U.S. 460 project will be hovering over the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) today as Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne updates the board about project financing for Interstate 66 outside the Washington Capital Beltway, expected to cost in the realm of $2 billion.

Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, set the stage Sunday in an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, in which he advocated using a Public Private Partnership (P3) to finance improvements to the critical Northern Virginia transportation corridor as opposed to a “design-build” contract. Design-build was the approach employed in the U.S. 460 connector between Petersburg and Suffolk that resulted in $300 million spent “without a single shovel of dirt being turned.”

Habeeb is asking a vital question: What is the best way to finance and operate mega-transportation projects with costs running into the billions of dollars? Under the old model, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) designed, built, financed and operated big projects entirely in-house. But with limited transportation funding available and restrictions on how much the state could borrow during the Warner, Kaine and McDonnell administrations, nothing much was getting built. The idea behind P3s was to leverage scarce state funding with private sector funding for tolled projects capable of generating a revenue stream. Toll revenues would pay off the private-sector bonds used to finance the improvements. In effect, P3s amounted to an end run around the tight strictures on how much debt the commonwealth could issue without jeopardizing its AAA credit rating. The debt, and the risk that went along with it, would be shifted to the private sector.

Habeeb likes P3s. Construction of express lanes on Interstate 495 and 95 in Northern Virginia opened on budget and ahead of schedule, he says. Further, he adds, “These two projects produced $5 billion in economic activity but because they were pursued as P3s taxpayers contributed only $492 in state transportation funds.”

By contrast, he writes, the U.S. 460 project was conducted as a design-build, in which design and construction were outsourced to a private-sector consortium but the state planned to finance and operate the highway, “leaving taxpayers on the hook if the project failed” … which it did, costing taxpayers in the neighborhood of $300 million.”

I think there’s a time and place for P3s, but the cost-benefit calculus is more complex than Habeeb acknowledges in a 750-word op-ed. The big bugaboo is risk. There are many types of risk associated with transportation megaprojects, and it isn’t always clear what they are and who is shouldering it. Virginia’s Office of Transportation Public Private Partnerships was tracking risks in the U.S. 460 project — the risk that really mattered, and ended up killing the project, whether or not the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would not issue required wetlands permits — but the concerns were ignored by the McDonnell administration for political reasons.

Would the U.S. 460 fiasco have been avoided if it had been a P3? Undoubtedly, a private-sector partner would have taken greater precautions to get its permits lined up before expending $300 million of its own money on design and construction-mobilization costs. So, most likely, the fiasco would not have occurred. On the other hand, a P3 partnership was not practicable. Toll revenues would have been so meager that only a small percentage of the project could have been funded privately — that’s why the state decided to take over the financing itself.

It’s easy to forget that there are risks associated with P3s as well. What happens if toll revenues fail to meet forecasts, as has been the case with the 495 Express Lanes? It all depends on how a particular deal is structured. Many projects are backed by federal loan guarantees called TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loans. Every bond financing provides a buffer for modest revenue shortfalls. But if revenues fall far short, TIFIA eats the loss before non-guaranteed loans do. Instead of state taxpayers taking the hit, federal taxpayers do. If TIFIA bond holders get wiped out, then holders of the private bonds are next in line. In the worst case scenario, as happened with the Pocahontas Parkway outside Richmond, a project can get turned over to the banks.

The commonwealth ordinarily takes great pains to protect itself from financial liabilities in case of P3 failure. But there are other risks. P3 contracts usually last 50 to 100 years, and private-sector partners negotiate terms that protect their revenue stream over the long run. Typically, they insert clauses that restrict the state from building roads, rail lines or other transportation alternatives that might divert paying customers. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict 50 years in advance how future growth and development will alter travel patterns and what options might be necessary.  P3 anti-competitive clauses could limit the ability of the state to provide adequate transportation to some of its citizens far into the future. Those are risks that may not become evident for decades.

I, for one, will be interested to see how Secretary Layne proposes to finance the I-66 improvements. Hopefully, he’s learned the right lessons from the U.S.460 experience.

Portsmouth Takes a Hit from Tunnel Construction

tunnel_traffic

Vehicle traffic through Downtown and Midtown tunnels. Image credit: James V. Koch. Click for larger image.

by James A. Bacon

The City of Portsmouth has been clobbered by the imposition of tolls on the Midtown Tunnel and Downtown Tunnel connecting the city to Norfolk, and hammered again by construction-related disruptions to service on the tunnels. Combined, the impact of tolls and disruption have reduced quarterly taxable sales by $24 million annually, materially harming businesses and crimping tax revenue, finds James V. Koch, president emeritus of the economics department at Old Dominion University in a new study.

In the report, “The Impact of Tolls on the City of Portsmouth: The Evidence 15 Months Later,” Koch is especially critical of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and its private-sector partner, the Elizabeth River Company (ERC), for providing motorists inadequate warning of the interruptions to traffic disruptions, thus creating widespread uncertainty among discretionary drivers “east of the river” who might otherwise travel to stores, recreation, churches or social gatherings in the city. “In many drivers’ minds, tunnel closures have become sufficiently unpredictable that they are not going to take chances,” he writes.

Koch does not criticize the decision of VDOT under the McDonnell administration to impose tolls on the formerly toll-free tunnels in order to finance construction of new tunnel lanes and related land-side transportation improvements to alleviate some of the worst traffic congestion in Hampton Roads. Benefits will be felt throughout the region. But he does note that Portsmouth is suffering disproportionately.

Says Koch: “My rough estimate is that Portsmouth is impacted 31 percent more than Suffolk by the tolls and closures, 459 percent more than Norfolk, and 616 percent more than Virginia Beach.”

Bacon’s bottom line:  It’s no surprise that imposing tolls where there were none imposes economic pain. What I find most interesting is Koch’s conclusion that the impact of construction-related disruptions was almost as severe — $10 million of the $24 million — but could be partially mitigated if ERC and VDOT did a better job of alerting drivers, either through advertising or signage, of those disruptions. That is a management issue, not an inevitable consequence of the construction project.

Koch thinks the hit to taxable sales could get worse this year and next. However, the region should start feeling the benefits when the project is complete. As Koch writes:

When all of the construction is completed (and setting tolls aside), the cost of driving in and out of Portsmouth will decline. Vehicles will be able to travel at higher speeds, fewer traffic jams will confer time savings, travel will become much more predictable, vehicle wear and tear will decline, and there will be diminished pollution.  To the extent these reductions in costs exceed the size of the tolls being paid, they will make Portsmouth a more attractive place to live and/or to locate a business.

From a macro-economic perspective, Portsmouth may wind up better off in the long run. But that won’t be much consolation to the businesses that Koch thinks very well could go out of business in the meantime. VDOT and ERC need to act quickly to mitigate what harm they can.

Injecting the “Public” Back into Public-Private Partnerships

P3sWe haven’t heard much about Public-Private Partnerships since the days of the McDonnell administration, which touted P3s as a tool for leveraging limited state transportation funding into more road and rail construction. The problem with the McDonnell team’s reliance on P3s wasn’t the grand strategy but the execution. The tolling of the Downtown-Midtown Tunnel in Norfolk proved so controversial that the state felt compelled to cough up money to buy down the cost of the tolls. Also, the U.S. 460 Connector turned into a fiasco potentially costing the state $300 million, including $250 million in payments to the concessionaire to do nothing even though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had balked at issuing wetland permits for the proposed route.

Trip Pollard, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, has been one of the most outspoken critics of Virginia’s P3s. But in a recent post on the Brookings Institution blog, he says he sees them as a potentially valuable tool to supplement public funds with private capital. Rather than throw out the P3 option, he argues, we need to build more transparency, public input and government oversight into the P3 approval process. He offers several concrete suggestions.

Speaking of public engagement with P3s, here are the new  “P3 Public Engagement Guidelines” released by the Office for Virginia Public-Private Partnerships. I’m not sure it’s possible to fully reconcile the private sector’s desire to negotiate in secrecy, not in the press, and the public’s right to know. But the McAuliffe administration is making a yeoman’s effort of trying to thread that needle.

Meanwhile, occasional Bacon’s Rebellion contributor Randy Salzman is still doggedly pursuing P3s. He asks a simple question: How is it possible that so many P3s have proven to be financial disasters, and why, knowing their abominable track record, do private-sector players continue to invest in them? Do the private participants engage in behind-the-curtain financial engineering that makes P3s profitable even if revenues fall short and the projects tank? He has come up with some tantalizing leads but no definitive answers. My suspicion: Follow the TIFIA loans, federally backed loan guarantees that absorb much of the risk inherent in P3 projects. What are the underwriting standards for those loans? How many have gone bad? How much in losses has the federal government sustained?

– JAB

Building the New Midtown Tunnel

tunnel_construction

Graphic credit: Virginia Business. Click for more legible image.

Building the new Midtown Tunnel between Norfolk and Portsmouth is one of the more spectacular engineering feats ever attempted in Virginia. Elizabeth River Crossings (ERC), the private-sector partner in charge of the $1.5 billion construction project, has to dredge a 95-foot-deep trench in the Elizabeth River, float 11 massive concrete tubes the length of football fields down from Sparrows Point Md., submerge them, and then place them together within one-inch tolerances in order to snap them together.

The tunnel, only the second in the nation to be constructed in this manner, is engineered to withstand the weight of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Virginia Business has the story.

– JAB

Highway Robbery

express_lane_camerasby James A. Bacon

I’ve always considered Transurban, operator of the express lanes on the Interstate 495 and Interstate 95, to be a pretty savvy outfit. The company may have over-estimated traffic demand for its express lanes when deciding back in the mid-2000s to build the Northern Virginia toll operations, but corporate executives seemed highly professional in the way they designed, constructed, promoted and managed the business.

At least, they did until now…  Fox News reports that Transurban has filed 26,000 cases against I-495 express lane users for non-payment. It’s one thing to dun people for $10, $20 or even $100. But Transurban is slapping some drivers with thousands of dollars in fees and fines for a single offense. Reports Fox News:

Luis Viera used to take the Express Lanes from Clinton, Md., to his job in Tysons Corner. His E-ZPass was automatically deducting tolls from his credit card.

Then one day, Luis was slapped with a summons to Fairfax County Court. Transurban was suing him for $4,500 in fees and fines for exactly $7.70 in missed tolls.

Luis went to court the first time without a lawyer. “I was nervous,” Luis said. “I didn’t get any sleep. I wasn’t eating. It was a bad week leading up to it.”

In the courtroom, a woman who said she represented Transurban approached Luis before the judge entered. She said the company would settle for $2,488.

“How does $10 turn into $2,000?”

Darn good question. How does $10 turn into $2,000? Transurban responded as follows: “Although less than 0.1% of all 495 Express Lane trips end up in court, we continue to do all we can to minimize any traveler going to court, this is why we have the First-Time Forgiveness program which has helped nearly 800 travelers. Additionally, we do not profit from the fines or penalties. As defined by Virginia law, any and all revenue collected from toll fines and penalties are cost recovery only to fund the enforcement program and we currently we do not even recover costs.”

Ah, hah! The fines cover the expense of the entire enforcement program — including lawyers, license plate-reading cameras, and IT systems to track the scofflaws. I can’t blame Transurban for wanting to cover its costs but the company has to weigh the business consequences: Charging $2,500 or more will piss off a lot of drivers — I mean really piss them off. Luis Viera says he won’t ever use the express lanes again. Who can blame him? How many other people, hearing of Viera’s experience, will refuse to ever use the express lanes? Who wants to run the risk of getting clobbered with a $2,500 fine?

Bacon’s bottom line: Conceptually, using the price mechanism to ration scarce highway capacity is one of the most cost-effective tools we have to manage traffic congestion. But the devil is in the details. Economic models that model supply and demand equations don’t ordinarily consider such grungy facts as enforcement. People make mistakes. People cheat. Toll road operators must have a mechanism for enforcing payment. If those enforcement mechanisms lead to manifestly unjust results, as appears to be happening in Fairfax County, people will avoid the express lanes and political support will wither.

Virginia authorities need to revisit the enforcement provisions in the Transurban public-private partnership contract and, ideally, induce Transurban into re-negotiating the offending clauses. It won’t be easy because traffic volumes and revenues are falling short of projections, and Transurban may not be receptive to changes that might raise its cost structure. On the other hand, the company does have a 70-year contract and it needs to consider the long-term implications of alienating its customer base. If a huge fan of the express lane concept like myself finds $2,500 fines for $10 offenses to be outrageous and indefensible, I feel like I’m pretty safe in saying that Transurban stands all alone on this one.

(Hat tip: Rob Whitfield)

Optimism Bias and Risk in Public Private Partnerships

The tolling technology is better than ever -- but traffic forecasts are a disaster.

The tolling technology is better than ever — but traffic forecasts are a disaster.

by James A. Bacon

Randy Salzman, a free-lance Charlottesville writer, has spent the last couple of years trying to understand how Public Private Partnerships (P3s) work in Virginia. If the private sector is supposed to be so much more efficient than government, he asks, how  come so many big P3 transportation projects in Virginia and across the nation have gone bankrupt? Why do private sector companies continue investing in similar projects despite the obvious risk? And what exposure do taxpayers when deals go bad? He doesn’t have any definitive answers, but he lays out a lot of good questions in the latest issue of Style Weekly.

Salz, an occasional contributor to Bacon’s Rebellion, gets closest to the truth when he mentions the “optimism bias” in traffic forecasts. In project after project across the country, private P3 companies and  their government partners have over-estimated traffic volumes on the roads they build. Writes Salz:

One study found that the projections tended to be 109 percent more than actual traffic — or more than double — and that nowhere in completed American P3s have actual traffic and toll income come close to projections.

Here in Virginia, flawed traffic forecasts were at the root of the Pocahontas Parkway debacle in eastern Henrico County and, if I’m not mistaken, the Dulles Greenway bankruptcy in Loudoun County (although that was not a P3 project). And there’s a very good chance that the Capital Beltway Express’s Northern Virginia HOT lanes project will experience a similar fate.

I think there are two things going on here. First, the private sector’s flawed traffic project models paralleled flawed public sector models. Everybody in the transportation business extrapolated the growth trends of the ’60s, 70s, ’80s and ’90s indefinitely into the future. I warned a decade ago that that was folly, but not many people listened. Reality set in in the mid-2000s when growth rates started tapering off and during the 2007-2008 recession, when traffic volume actually declined. The reasons are many and complex, as I have enumerated ad nauseum on this blog, but they are fundamental and lasting, not just a blip. We will not in our lifetimes return to the traffic-volume growth rates experienced during the post-World War II era.

The forecasts of traffic volume and associated toll revenues for the P3 projects were predicated on the assumption, now revealed to have been astonishingly naive, that traffic volume would increase on the same trajectory pretty much forever. That’s why the bankruptcies ensued, and why there will be more to come.

If experience tells us anything, the private sector will figure that out before the public sector does. As Salz quotes Lane Construction as saying in regard to proposed Interstate 66 toll lanes near Washington: Traffic projections have an “optimism bias.” Which brings us to the second reason for the wave of bad deals. Once someone, whether a private investor or a government agency, invests hundreds or thousands of man hours in analyzing a project, they get personally invested. No one likes to pull the plug. They want to see the project move forward. They tend to adopt assumptions that will make the project look more viable in order to obtain the financing needed to move it from paper to reality. This bias is so endemic in all types of projects that we can almost call it a part of human nature.

The private sector has built-in bullshit detectors. They’re called investors and bond holders. Investors want to generate a positive risk-adjusted return on investment. Bond-holders want to get their money back, plus interest. They may rely upon flawed traffic projects that no one questions, but they don’t suffer from the optimism bias of the project sponsors. They are naturally skeptical and have an interest in asking tough questions. Now, these investors and bond holders aren’t infallible by any means. They make bad investments, too. But they demand a higher standard of certainty than, say, politicians who want the glory of building a road but won’t be around to take the blame if the project falls apart.

Every toll-backed P3 project sells bonds to investors. How, then, did so many go wrong? The key is to look at how the public partner biased the outcome through subsidies and loan guarantees. Every big P3 project applies for financing from the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA). These federally guaranteed loans create a tranche of subordinated debt that creates a layer of protection for private bond holders. In other words, if Project A experiences a revenue shortfall, what revenues it does produce will go to bond holders first. Here’s how the Federal Highway Administration describes it: “The TIFIA lien on project revenues may be subordinated to those of senior lenders except in the case of bankruptcy, insolvency, or liquidation of the obligor.”

This layer of protection significantly reduces the risk for senior bond holders, who then demand fewer assurances than they would otherwise before purchasing the bonds. In Virginia, the commonwealth has reduced project risk by making significant cash contributions as well. Most of the P3 projects set up in Virginia in recent years have used some combination of TIFIA funding and public subsidies to make the projects work. Without these contributions, the perceived risk would have been far higher, and the chances of getting pure private financing would have been much diminished. It’s fair to say that many, if not most, of the deals never would have happened.

Combine these three factors — highly flawed long-term traffic projections embraced by the public and private sectors both, the optimism bias for specific projects, and the diminution of risk through TIFIA financing and public subsidies — and we can explain a lot of went wrong. That’s not an exhaustive list of explanations but it accounts for a lot. Continue reading

U.S. 460: Peeling Back the Onion

peeling_onionby James A. Bacon

Structuring the U.S. 460 Connector as a public-private partnership (P3) shielded the $1.4 billion project from much of the oversight required for conventional Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) projects, found a confidential report by VDOT’s Assurance Compliance Division and the Office of the State Inspector General.

As a consequence, the McDonnell administration was able to pursue a “very aggressive or extremely aggressive” schedule for advancing the project without informing the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) or the general public of major regulatory issues that threatened the project’s viability. Due to concerns over the impact on nearly 500 acres of wetlands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had balked on issuing needed environmental permits. Even so, VDOT paid $250 million to the design-build contractor, US Mobility Partners, under the terms of the contract.

“This action may have placed additional permitting risks and associated schedule risk on taxpayers of the commonwealth of Virginia,” states the confidential, 54-page report obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, appointed by Governor Terry McAuliffe, suspended the project early this year until the permitting issues could be resolved. He said the state potentially could be exposed to $500 million in losses. VDOT is examining alternative routes for the project that the Army Corps might find more acceptable.

I have not seen the report. I base this commentary purely upon the distillation of it appearing in the T-D. What appears to be absent is any assessment of who was responsible for pursuing the project so aggressively and whether that effort triggered any alarms or pushback within VDOT. Perhaps that omission is inevitable, given that McDonnell administration officials and U.S. 460 Mobility Partners declined to hand over requested documents. The governor, his chief-of-staff Martin Kent and Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton said that the state code protected the documents as governor’s working papers.

(Update: A copy of the report has fallen into my hands, and I was incorrect to surmise that it did not address who was responsible for pushing the project. In fact, the report concludes: “The Route 460 project was a priority of the McDonnell Administration and championed by the former Secretary of Transportation, who provided persistent oversight and direction to both the Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnership (“OTP3″) Director and VDOT staff to ensure the timely execution of the Comprehensive Agreement.”)

There is an inherent tension between confidentiality and the public’s right to know in a public-private partnership. A prospective private-sector partner understandably does not want to negotiate a contract in the media. On the other hand, when a contract is completed, it is presented as fait accompli. If the public does not like the terms, too bad, the contract will not be renegotiated. Also, as it transpires in this case, US 460 Mobility Partners was able to withhold invoices that would be public record if the project had been conducted by VDOT.

The original impetus behind the P3 project was understandable. The McDonnell administration wanted to solicit independent and creative thinking from the private sector on how to finance the project. But all three of the consortia that submitted proposals agreed that tolls could support only a small portion of the total cost. The McDonnell team scrapped the idea of contracting with a private partner to design, build, own and operate the 55-mile, Interstate-grade highway, and decided to hire one of the three, US Mobility Partners, to design and build the project, and then turn it over to VDOT to own and operate. Why not let VDOT handle the entire project? In theory, US Mobility Partners would shoulder the risk of completing construction on time and on budget.

In practice, the use of the partnership structure allowed the McDonnell administration to cloak problems from the CTB and the public. While VDOT did brief the CTB on the project, it never mentioned the Army Corps permitting issues that could put the entire deal in jeopardy. The inspectors concluded that the state had not broken any rules in handling things the way it did but there is no denying that the McDonnell administration kept a massive problem out of the public eye until the McAuliffe team took over and Layne could see what had transpired.

The report made two worthwhile recommendations. First, there should be a 30-day cooling-off period for public-private deals to allow legislators to review negotiated contracts before they take effect. Second, VDOT should consider the Corps’ input in the planning stages of highway projects, not after a project has been contracted. Sounds pretty basic.

This report doesn’t close to answering all the questions I have (and that others should have) about this project. But it does represent progress. We know more now than we knew before.

Quote of the Day: Doug Koelemay

koelemayAs it appears increasingly likely that Congress will throttle the flow of federal transportation dollars to the states, state officials are looking at alternative financing mechanisms such as Public Private Partnerships (P3s). As it happens, Virginia is one of only four states with extensive experience with P3s — the others are California, Texas and Florida — so it’s no surprise that Governing magazine touched base with Doug Koelemay, the McAuliffe administration’s P3 chief, for comments in a recent article.

Koelemay, who heads the state’s Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnerships, … stresses the need for an open process in developing the agreements. Public notice and comment periods are often “sterile” and yield little useful information. But more public involvement can help planners develop better projects, Koelemay says, because they can understand the public’s concerns as consumers of transportation services.

P3s are an invaluable tool for building transportation mega-projects. But as experience in Virginia has shown, there is a built-in tension between protecting the confidentiality of P3 contract negotiations and maintaining openness and transparency. The public is not well-served by a process in which a negotiated contract is presented with a take-it-or-leave-it option. Of course, the public is not well served either by an open-ended process that allows for continual modifications and revisions leading to mission creep and cost overrruns.

I’m not sure how to balance the conflicting considerations. There are no easy answers. Koelemay is clearly signaling that the McAuliffe administration is leaning toward greater openness and transparency.

– JAB

Horse Gone, Search Ensues to Find Out Who Should Have Closed the Door

barn_doorby James A. Bacon

A new question has arisen about the proposed $1.4 billion upgrade to U.S. 460 between Petersburg and Suffolk. Once the McDonnell administration ascertained that none of the three public-private partnership proposals on the table were viable and that the state would operate the road instead, why didn’t the Virginia Department of Transportation re-submit the construction project to competitive bidding? Why did the administration choose from among the three consortia that had submitted the original proposals?

“There is no doubt in my mind that this should have gone back out for new bids,” Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, told the Times-Dispatch. “That would have been the prudent thing for the commonwealth.”

The House Appropriations Committee has summoned Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, appointed by Governor Terry McAuliffe, to appear before the committee today to explain the decision-making process. The highway upgrade, touted as a boon to economic development in southern Hampton Roads when the Panama Canal widening opens, has been put on hold until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes its assessment of the proposed route, which would disrupt hundreds of acres of wetlands.  The state has already paid $300 million under terms of the contract even though construction work yet to begin.

The original concept for the project was a public-private partnership funded mainly by the private sector. Three design-construction consortia submitted proposals but all three made it clear that there would not be sufficient traffic volume on the highway to build it without massive government subsidies. The McDonnell administration decided to cut project costs by selling tax-free bonds through an independent financing authority and limiting the private sector role to designing and building the project.

Over and above seeking an explanation of how the state spent so much money before required environmental permits were obtained, legislators also want to know why VDOT didn’t open up the bidding process once a decision had been made to restructure the project. A larger number of bidders likely would have resulted in a lower winning bid.

An uproar developed over bidding for Phase 2 of the Rail-to-Dulles project in Northern Virginia when the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority enacted a rule that would have required construction companies to enter into a Project Labor Agreement (PLA), effectively limiting the bidders to union companies. Many feared that the PLA requirement would result in fewer bids and a higher construction cost. Under public pressure MWAA backed off. Apparently, no one was watching the U.S. 460 project closely enough to question the McDonnell administration’s decision to avoid opening up the bidding process for a mega-project of comparable size.

How North Carolina Halted a Bridge Boondoggle

mid-currituck_bridge

Map credit: Lochner MMM

by James A. Bacon

Many Virginians know the agony of driving to vacation in the Outer Banks at the peak of the summer season. Heading south between Chesapeake and Kitty Hawk, you follow four-lane roads jammed with as many as 50,000 cars on Saturdays. Then, if you’re staying in Duck, Whalehead or Corolla, you have to head back north through more congestion. It sure would be nice to have a bridge across the Currituck Sound directly to Corolla.

As it happens, the state of North Carolina was planning to build a seven-mile span from Coinjock to Corolla. The Mid-Currituck Bridge, expected to cost $411 million in its most recent incarnation, could save an hour’s driving time. The project worked its way through the traditional North Carolina project-approval system and, at one point, construction was expected to begin in 2012 and to be open to traffic in 2013.

I’m sure there are a lot of vested interests in the Outer Banks that would love to see new transportation capacity that would make it easier for even more visitors to come rent cottages, rent kayaks and go surfing. But North Carolina has instituted a system that we’re still working on here in Virginia: a methodology for ranking proposed highway projects according to cost, saved travel time, congestion relief, safety and economic benefits. According to the Virginian-Pilot, the Tarheels have scored some 1,284 projects and plans to release results for another 500 in May.

The result for the proposed Currituck Bridge: a score of 23.4 points out of a possible 100, giving it a rank of 178th in importance to North Carolina. It doesn’t look like the bridge will get state funding any time soon.

I have a problem with over-development of the ecologically fragile spit of land that originates in Virginia and extends almost unbroken all the way to Hatteras. The Outer Banks are a national treasure. Federal flood insurance subsidies are already encouraging excessive building on sand that could literally wash away with the next hurricane. The state of North Carolina doesn’t need to be subsidizing over-building as well.

That concern aside, I have a suggestion for the county officials of Currituck County who have been lobbying for the bridge. Don’t ask the citizens of North Carolina to pay for your bridge. Figure out how to pay for it yourself.

Issuing 30-year, tax-free bonds to cover the cost of $411 million bridge would require roughly $30 million a year in revenue. Could the bridge generate enough value for the tourism industry in the Northern Outer Banks to pay $30 million in financing costs and have local businesses come out ahead? If so, enact the needed legislation and get the deal done. If not, then the bridge, which is needed to accommodate peak traffic that occurs 13 or 14 Saturdays out of the year, would destroy economic value, not create it, and should never be built.

There are at least three potential financing mechanisms: tolls, value capture and excise taxes.

Tolls: A harried dad with antsy kids in the back seat would gladly fork over $10 or more to shave an hour off his drive to Corolla or points south. A toll could generate millions of dollars in revenue each summer to pay off the bonds issued to build the bridge. Indeed, before the project was put on hold, the Mid-Currituck Bridge project would have charged tolls. However, the North Carolina legislature envisioned the need to spend $28 million a year in gap funding, according to the News & Observer.

Value capture. Major beneficiaries of a bridge would be the owners of hotels and rental property. A bridge that cut driving time and made Currituck destinations the closest to Northern markets would allow owners to raise rents and generate more revenue. Set up a special district to impose a property tax surcharge to capture some of that added value and use it to pay off the bonds.

Resort meals tax. Other beneficiaries include owners of restaurants, shops and other beach amenities. Create a special resort tax district that collects an extra penny per dollar on retail sales. Apply that to pay off the bonds. Continue reading