Public-Private Partnerships and the Proposed Indianapolis Justice Center

15 Mar

Interesting article in yesterday’s Indy Star about the $1.75B justice complex being proposed for Marion County: Weighing the scales: $1.75B justice center could be a bargain or a boondoggle.

The article in the Indy Star is less about the justice center itself (which nearly everyone seems to agree is needed) than about the procurement method being selected to build and operate it — so-called performance-based infrastructure. This is a form of public-private partnership (often called P3) that will be familiar to Monroe County residents, because it is being used for construction and operation of I-69 Section 5 (I have written about P3 used for Section 5 here). It has already been used as well for the Ohio River Bridges project near Louisville (and note that this method is NOT what was used with the Indiana Toll Road).

Per the studies cited in this article, the results of performance-based infrastructure (PBI) have been mixed. However, the most interesting aspect to me from a public policy perspective is how dependent these cost-benefit analyses (comparing the performance-based infrastructure procurement method against the traditional method, where the government bids out the construction, bonds for the funding, and then operates the facilities) are on the assessment of risk. Depending on how much risk you build into your cost-benefit model, the savings from performance-based infrastructure can be made to appear much larger or much smaller. This is because one of the primary benefits from PBI is that the contractor absorbs cost and schedule overruns (along with other risks), not the government. However, how much actual risk is avoided can often (always?) be a matter of disagreement and dispute.

This also leads to another question: how do you fairly assess the success of such a project after the fact? Once the project is completed, the risk that was avoided is obviously no longer a factor. But did the government still get the benefit of avoiding a risk of an event that wound up not happening anyway? Did you get the benefit of having car insurance last year even though you didn’t have any accidents or making any claims?

In any case, the article is worth reading. We will undoubtedly be seeing more, not less, of these P3/PBI deals, as local and state governments continue to try to build and operate infrastructure with flat or diminishing tax revenues.

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