A Prescription for P3s: Cities Can Drive an Infrastructure Reboot

Emmitt Smith joins the USCM to address P3s and infrastructure progress made by cities.

Local leadership and P3s will transform crumbling infrastructure and build the cities of the future, according to mayors and capital investors.

“We need an infrastructure reboot,” said Steven Demetriou, chairman and chief executive officer of Jacobs Engineering Group, as he opened an afternoon plenary about infrastructure and public private partnerships (P3s) at the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) 86th annual meeting.

Los Angeles Eric Garcetti and chair of the USCM Infrastructure Task Force, who was joined by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, Emmitt Smith, chairman of E Smith Advisors and E Smith Legcy Holdings, and Joe Aiello, chair of the board of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), said Washington, D.C. has stalled on infrastructure since January 2017. But cities have passed $230 billion since that time.

Garcetti addressed how the city’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation at Metro has pushed the private sector to develop solutions instead of the city putting out an RFP for a dictated solution. Being entrepreneurial, and not prescriptive, about solving problems creates P3s that propel projects forward, he said.

We are choking in traffic and we will try anything. But we will make sure our partnerships work,” said Garcetti.

How P3s Get from Blueprints to Bootprints

Civilization settles in cities, according to Garcetti, to be safe. “But they exist to give citizens the good life,” and they are defined “by what we build,” he told his colleagues.

He told panel moderator Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms that there are pre-conceived ideas that partnerships sell government assets. On the other end of the spectrum, some believe that only the private sector can handle infrastructure, he said.

“Come to LA and test your ideas in LA first,” Garcetti said he tells the private sector.

“Folks come to cities like that because you’re creative,” Rawlings told Garcetti.

Garcetti said that innovations, like Elon Musk’s The Boring Company doubling the pace of the boring machine, can make infrastructure projects happen where they were previously too difficult, for various reasons.

Just two weeks before, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was at Boston’s Suffolk University addressing government partnerships and spoke with great admiration about the innovative boring being done to change the face of public transit in L.A. Dukakis — who is a professor of public policy at both Northeastern University and University of California, Los Angeles, for more than 20 years — said he cannot believe that the western U.S. metro is beating Boston in public transportation, as he spoke critically about risk aspects of certain MBTA contracts.

“Getting things done in the public sector is all about partnerships,” and it’s imperative to put together a list of “key players” Dukakis had told the room full of public policy students, practitioners and academics. Those that have an interest in issues like transportation need to be brought to the table, “whether they agree with you or not,” the three-time governor and once presidential nominee insisted.

Aiello, who is also a partner at Meridiam Infrastructure, noted the Los Angeles Airport expansion project is a best-in-class example of a P3 because it drove out-of-the-box thinking, as well as minority involvement.

Rawlings said P3 s have worked well to advance several projects in Dallas. It’s essential to figure out how capital intersects with projects. The federal government won’t give it, and states don’t have it, he said. “We have to figure out the solution,” adding, “There are trillions of dollars sitting on the sidelines.”

In the absence of federal and state funding, Rawlings said cities need to make sure the private sector makes a profit while the public needs assurance that it will not lose control of public assets.

There are ways to have win-win situations, added Smith. “The last twenty years are gone.”

“We’re looking for visionary leaders who can articulate where they want those communities to go,” added Aiello. He said when companies compete for those projects, cities benefit.

Rawlings agreed that the mind set of competition is helpful. “We should be in that competitive mode, not to stab each other in the back, but to raise the bar.” And then cities can share ideas with each other.

Look Toward the Future and Think Regionally

Rawlings said that longevity is what city leaders need to be thinking about — building for 40 years out. “We don’t do that,” he said, noting that cities need to get better at research and development.

Demetriou said in his remarks preceding the panel that it’s imperative that the country move away from “disconnected development” and put forth better “master planning” efforts.

Garcetti advised mayors be collaborative – “don’t just fight for your town,” he said, advising the mayors in attendance, to listen to other towns in their counties.

He also stressed the need for cities to try new technologies. “Why can’t we leap frog ahead?” Garcetti asked. Don’t let other countries try them first, he said, because if we try them first, we can start manufacturing the technology in the United States.

There’s not one American company that makes rail cars anymore, Garcetti pointed out.

The country’s first high speed rail will connect Dallas to Houston and will be running by 2022, said Rawlings. “That’s going to change the landscape,” and will affect the region.

The high speed rail technology is based on Japan’s, he acknowledged.

Aiello noted that competition can benefit citizens more than the companies. By giving citizens control over their mobility with one app, for example, Boston is leveraging both Uber and Lyft.

Infrastructure Inclusion & Inspirations

Infrastructure unites all, said Garcetti. Bottoms asked Smith how cities can make P3s more meaningful.

“It begins with policy,” Smith said, noting diversity studies have been limited in scope. But where there is engineering, construction and financing, there are actually opportunities, he said.

“Scorecards do not reward minority companies,” but all the ingredients are here to break down walls, barriers and limitations and give opportunities to minority companies that are qualified to do the work, Smith insisted.

His company mandates funded projects include women-owned and minority-owned businesses. With a $1.5 trillion gap in infrastructure, “growth is going to come one day,” Smith said.

Rawlings said Dallas is doing remarkable,

…But the gap between the have and have-nots is too big. It’s much more fun when everyone is on the same team.”

He said he feels confident about the city over the next few years, ‘but what about in 25?,’ Rawlings asked rhetorically.

The city of Toronto, Spain and Australia were a few of the places Aiello said American cities can learn from.

“Socialist Europe” is better at bringing in capitalists for public projects, Garcetti noted.

Smith said the planning that and execution of projects that happen in Dubai are worthy of emulation. It’s important that cities create opportunities for all people alike.

“Nobody should be left behind,” he said.

Mayor’s P3 Prescription

Garcetti summed the panel up with: “Be bold, be responsible, work together.”

An example of bold is a zero-emission scooter share. An example of responsible is switching to a micro transit opportunity that eliminates an underused bus line but still takes people where they need to go. And cities working together to buy electric vehicles drives down prices.

That’s “government doing things differently,” said Bottoms.

Learn more about P3s:

The Future of Public Service Quick Take: Government Partnerships & Trends

Why Infrastructure is a Revenue Challenge for Cities

How to Make P3s Successful, a Handbook

About the author

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox is Editor of EfficientGov.com and Senior Editor at Praetorian Digital. She is based in Massachusetts.