Seeking alternative ways to finance work on the planned new Tappan Zee Bridge, officials from around the region gathered Friday to talk about public-private partnerships as a way to support funding.
The event, co-sponsored by state Sen. Greg Ball and the Business Council of Westchester, was held at the Mount Kisco Public Library and included several politicians in the area.
Ball (R-Patterson), called public-private partnerships - they are also known as "P3" - as "exactly the tool that this Governor [Andrew Cuomo] needs to make sure that we do the Tappan Zee project right and that we do it well.”
The state senator also argued that P3 can be used to have the private sector come in and take a role in financing to bring mass transit to the Tappan Zee, a concept that has been seen, according to media reports, as impractical due to costs.
“This project is too big to get wrong," Ball said.
While the state senator acknowledged that P3 may not be applicable to the Tappan Zee for the design and build phase, he emphasized that it could be helpful for transit. Pointing to the consequences of merely promises the possibility of mass transit for the Tappan Zee, Ball noted that the George Washington Bridge, which was built roughly eight decades ago, was also transit-ready but did not take it on. Ball also suggested that tens of thousands of jobs could be created from work on the bridge.
Joining the discussion were veterans of the construction industry and public sector, each giving their support for P3 legislation and sharing their experiences.
“This is a vital program for the economy of New York State, the infrastructure of New York State, the people of New York State," said Ross Pepe, president of the Construction Indusry Council. Pepe has spoken out multiple times in favor of replacing the the bridge.
Supporters of P3 legislation also want to allow for pension funds, including those for unions, to be able to invest in infrastructure projects, an idea touted by Ball and Pepe during a press conference.
“I think this is a unique opportunity for New York to tap into a process that more and more states are using now," said Rick Norment, of the National Council for Public Private Partnerships, a group that focuses on the issue.
Shirley Ybarra, Virginia's former transportation secretary, noted that her state was among the earliest to implement P3, in 1995, an effort that she support during her tenure.
“I think you have to think of this as a procurement process,” she said, at the roundtable, of getting pension fund investment. She feels that more can be done to convince investors to back P3 domestically.
Given potential private-sector involvement - it can range from financing to operation and maintenance of infrastructure - the question came up during the press conference about what control governments maintain.
“The control stays with the public sector," Norment replied. "Ownership stays with the public sector. This is not privatization.”
Ball said that they will make sure there are "full protections" for taxpayers and rate payers. Ybarra felt that the argeements with companies can be used to make sure controls are in place.
The role of P3 in financing, such as paying for the project cost, can vary. One possible way, it was explained, is to let the private company have control over tolls. George Miller, a partner at Mayer Brown who helped with P3 work in the Denver, CO area, suggested that another way would involve "availability payments," where a private developer builds and operates the infrastrucure, while the government keeps control over tolls. In return, the government would make periodic payments to the company, and attract whoever comes in with the lowest bid for such payments.
Supporters also contend that P3, in contrast to the traditional system of bidding out portions of a project, can expedite the process.
Cuomo, in his State of the State Address in January, indicated support for the use of public-private partnerships for state assets, although planning for the bridge, which is expected to cost $5.2 billion, does not include them.
Ball hopes to have draft legislation soon, and to work on the proposal if the state legislature hold a post-election special session. Another roundtable on P3, focusing on how it can impact schools, will be held on Oct. 11, at the same location.