PhillyDeals: Crossing a bridge as they come to it

Obama speaking in front of the closed I-495 bridge in Wilmington Thursday. (Patrick Semansy / AP)
Obama speaking in front of the closed I-495 bridge in Wilmington Thursday. (Patrick Semansy / AP)
Posted: July 22, 2014

Here is the speech President Obama might have given in Wilmington on Thursday, with the closed I-495 roadway hulking in the background, if he wasn't constrained by the rules of Washington theater:

"Congress won't help raise fuel taxes to pay for highway repairs under our current construction system - which, I admit, is the most expensive in the world.

"So I'm asking multinational banks, construction- company moguls, and hedge-fund billionaires to front cash repairs for decayed bridges, roads, ports, and airports.

"It may cost more this way, because those guys have to pay more to borrow money than the federal government does.

"But they'll get it back from you, and then some, by slapping tolls on bridges you got used to riding for free. Or some other fees.

"They'll also find ways to cut construction workers' hours. Or use cheap immigrant labor."

And welcome to the free market.

Instead our president talked in loops about an investor class that just needs a little website or Washington summit-meeting "matchmaking" with friendly local officials so we can "get more public-private partnerships up and running" and create more "middle-class jobs."

Talking briefly to reporters, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew got a little defensive: "None of these steps we are taking should be seen as a substitute for adequate public finance."

But Lew gave no more details on just how the private sector would get paid to build public projects, under the steps he is taking, and what it would cost us.

So I asked Frank M. Rapoport, the Berwyn-based lawyer for Peckar & Abramson P.C., who has long been mobilizing for a return to private road-funding, what's really going on.

"There was not an 'agenda' by the Republicans to help public-private partnerships directly," he told me. "They were just against the gas-tax increase. Thus, Obama is doing what he can, to help the governors and mayors."

OK, I told Rapoport. But your construction guys couldn't have planned this better if it was a conspiracy with the GOP. He laughed.

I asked Rapoport and his friend Tim Rutten, the Fluor Corp. lobbyist who heads the government affairs committee for the Association for the Improvement of American Infrastructure, what types of privately funded projects we should expect in the Philadelphia area.

"It's up to the mayors and governors to seize the initiative," Rapoport said. Gov. Christie appears "deep-down supportive."

But Gov. Corbett's Rapid Bridge Replacement Program is Exhibit A: "Go on the PennDot website. They got 300 bridges ready to go" for private repairs and long-term structural maintenance contracts, Rapoport reminded me.

Public costs, still to be disclosed.



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