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Fixing Georgia's infrastructure without busting the budget



February 17, 2005
Georgia's infrastructure needs help. With years of unrelenting use and growth taking their toll, our state needs a fresh approach to expand our water, transportation and other public systems without a massive government spending spree.

That may sound impossible, but it isn't. Not if we have the vision to embrace a proven infrastructure enhancement tool being used successfully by governments across the country and around the world.

I'm talking about public-private partnerships, an approach that brings together the policy direction and oversight of the public sector with the efficiency, flexibility, and financing resources of private industry. These partnerships routinely deliver infrastructure improvements to the public without stressing the public budget.

Today, our state needs the help of such partnerships. With five of the nation's 10 fastest growing counties here in Georgia, our population is surging and so are infrastructure demands. Water systems are straining to serve more people while meeting increasingly stringent federal water-quality mandates. Many roads and other transportation assets are simply overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, we face new demands on state funds, as our growing and aging population fuels the need for social services. Today, three-fourths of Georgia's budget goes to education and health care and the battle for the remaining 25 percent is intense.

Increasing taxes is certainly no solution. With taxes at all levels claiming 27 cents of every dollar earned in Georgia, tax hikes would threaten our economic health. Already, our state and local tax take is the 18th highest in the country. That's worse than Massachusetts — and up from 41st in 1970.

Instead, Georgia should use public-private partnerships, as appropriate, to supplement infrastructure improvement plans. It's an idea whose time has come — but it's not new.American public-private partnerships date back to 1652, when the first private water company opened in Boston. Two centuries later, similar partnerships built the transcontinental railroad. Still later, they helped spread electrical service from sea to shining sea.

More recently, many states and localities have found such partnerships highly effective. For example:
  • Edison, N.J. couldn't afford needed repairs to the city water system in 1997. Working with a private partner, officials were able to upgrade the system without boosting water rates.
  • In 2001, a public-private partnership built the District of Columbia's first new elementary school in two decades — without spending a nickel of tax money.
  • Thanks to a partnership, a new parkway outside Richmond was built 15 years earlier than planned. Taxpayers footed just 10 percent of the bill, with the balance paid by tolls.
  • Partnering with a private group, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey opened a new $1.4 billion international terminal at JFK airport in 2001.Partnerships, then, have a record of success — and they will work in Georgia if given the chance. To that end, I have introduced Senate Bill 5, which would allow state and local officials to use public-private partnerships to serve our citizens.
Though only in the early stages of the legislative process, the bill has attracted a surprising amount of criticism, most of which has been well-intentioned but fundamentally misinformed.

Some critics have said private companies should never meet public needs. That view ignores history, given the role private firms played in building America's initial water, transportation and electrical infrastructure. It also ignores the public sector's ultimate control of development, as well as the strong financial and legal incentives for private firms to do the job right.

Others have mistakenly linked public-private partnerships to wholly unrelated abuses of eminent domain, the government's power to buy private property for public use. This critique doesn't hold up, though, as the bill does absolutely nothing to dilute the public sector's authority to set development policies, including those related to eminent domain.

Interestingly enough, I wholeheartedly share these citizens concerns about eminent domain abuse. In fact, I am a proud co-sponsor of Senate Bill 86, which would ban the use of eminent domain in efforts to spur economic development or boost tax revenues.

Today as our growth threatens to overwhelm our infrastructure, Georgia faces a crisis. Working together to allow the use of sensible, well-considered public-private partnerships would be a strong step toward a solution.

State Senator Dan Moody is Chairman of the Senate Education and Youth Committee

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