P3s are great, we want P3s! But what about…?

Last week, we proposed rethinking public-private partnerships (P3s). Instead of closing a financing gap, P3s should fill a project execution gap. This change in perspective can better align incentives upfront and address the fundamental fact that public and private partners have different priorities.

Today, we’re taking a closer look at the issues cited as top barriers to traditional P3s: political risk, payments, and responsibilities. Lack of clarity for any of these three issues will exacerbate differences and drive a wedge between partners when project financing, rather the project delivery, is the goal. Let’s dive into each area of concern, and consider how a focus on execution rather than financing could lead to more successful public-private-partnership.

1. Political Risk: Traditionally in the US, P3s are developed after the project scale and scope has been established, and the project has become so big, complex and/or long-term that it cannot be entirely financed on a city’s balance sheet. These types of expensive, complicated, and long-term projects leave public and private partners exposed to all sorts of non-market risk — not the least of which is politicians changing their minds or being voted out of office mid-project. In traditional financing-focused P3s, changing political dynamics can doom an entire project. But if a P3 is designed for execution rather than just financing, then private partners are involved in troubleshooting and negotiations from the beginning, not just once it’s clear the money will be hard to find. That early engagement between public and private partners builds trust in a city’s staff and institutions, beyond individual elected leader(s) — which is key to ameliorating political risk. In addition, early engagement means all parties are driving towards and end goal that is focused on addressing local needs, not just on financing a solution. Some cities are already encouraging early engagement and participation with private partners through broader use of competitions and Requests for Information.

2. Payments: Quality cash flows are one of the greatest risks for any public-private-partnership. Many public infrastructure deals have failed or been slammed by citizens because real cash flows end up being very different than were predicted. The Indiana Toll Road is just one of several P3s that filed for bankruptcy after revenue came in much lower than projected. On the other hand, Chicago’s 2008 parking meter deal with Morgan Stanley caused a citizen uproar when the city’s inspector general concluded, a year later, that it had undersold the rights by about $1 billion, forfeiting an important source of revenue for the City. When a project is designed from the start to focus on service delivery instead of solely on financing, there is often opportunity to uncover non-traditional funding sources. The same is true when designing a P3. When private partners are at the table to start, more creative work can be done to clearly identify and quantify a range of potential payback streams. Having private partners help design, verify, and securitize cash flows results in a better deal for the city, the developer(s) and the investor(s). That’s why availability-payment projects, which are focused on service delivery and often require earlier engagement by private partners, are often more successful and growing in popularity compared to revenue-backed P3s.

3. Responsibilities: Designating a single entity — or at least a very clearly defined process — responsible for capturing, aggregating, and monetizing direct and indirect revenues is key to successful P3s. The easiest way to clearly define these responsibilities is through a contract between the city, the developer(s) and the investor(s) that allocates risk among the partners by defining sources of revenues, scope of work and payment terms, goals, and bonuses. A P3 focused on execution rather than financing helps define these lines more clearly so each partner can focus on what it does best. Government would set goals and standards to protect health and safety. Developers and investors would set targets, build and manage cost efficient systems. Government organized P3 offices have been used to successfully execute these arrangements internationally in Canada and Australia, and at the state-level domestically in Virginia, California, and Michigan. P3 offices provide the technical support public agencies need to coordinate public and private partners. These offices are effective because they steer governments towards projects that can thrive with P3s and help with upfront planning, and structuring using their in-house financial expertise.

P3s are an effort to make building and maintaining big-dollar, complicated, long-term infrastructure projects more efficient and affordable. P3s are complicated. There will always be questions about political risk, payments, and responsibilities. But well-conceived P3s — those focused on project delivery instead of financing — can effectively align incentives and address risks for all partners upfront. Not only can these well-conceived P3s save taxpayer money and reduce burden on local governments, they can also result in better service delivery for residents and maximize the social benefits of a project.

For example, the City and County of Honolulu partnered with Covanta on the H-Power waste-to-energy plant with the goal of eliminating landfills from the island while creating a sustainable energy source. Since its initial completion in 1993, the plant has not only consistently met or exceeded environmental permits and invested in innovation, it has also generated more than $201 million in revenues for the City, which has more than covered the costs of operation. More and more, we are also seeing examples of startups and other technology firms developing exciting P3s with cities to upgrade infrastructure systems.

Next in this series, we’ll explore various examples of successful execution focused P3s — from the traditional to the more exotic.