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1 .<-NARRATOR:->Listen to part of a lecture in a United States government class.
1 .<-FEMALE PROFESSOR:->We've been talking about the basic services and facilities that an economy needs to function—roads, bridges, rail systems, water supplies, power grids, and so forth.
2 .What we call infrastructure.
1 .Now, traditionally, much of a society's infrastructure—particularly the transportation infrastructure—has been owned and operated by states, by governments.
2 .But lately, local and state governments have started to consider, and sometimes actually enter into various deals to privatize parts of their infrastructure, particularly in the transportation sector.
1 .And why is this privatization happening?
2 .Well, as you may know, in the 1950s and sixties, there was a tremendous highway-building boom.
3 .Governments created a huge interlocking network of highways with associated bridges and tunnels.
4 .But these facilities are getting old now, and they're becoming more and more expensive to maintain, very expensive, actually.
5 .Tolls and tax revenues don't often cover all the needed repairs.
1 .<-MALE STUDENT:->So, why don't the governments just raise tolls and taxes?
1 .<-FEMALE PROFESSOR:->Well, that's not so simple.
2 .Government officials are elected by voters, and voters get upset when their taxes go up.
3 .And, as for highway tolls, commuters, especially, don't like paying higher tolls.
4 .Merely proposing increases can damage political careers.
5 .So there's tremendous pressure on governments to find other ways to maintain infrastructure assets.
6 .One solution is to sell or lease a part of the infrastructure—a toll bridge, a tunnel, something like that— to a private company, usually a company that specializes in this sorta thing.
7 .The idea is that the company that buys or leases a bridge or a highway, or whatever, will find it easier to keep it in good repair.
1 .<-MALE STUDENT:->That would make commuters happy.
1 .<-FEMALE PROFESSOR:->Right. There could be better service.
2 .Since they're not government entities, private companies face less political resistance, say, to raising tolls in order to provide that better service.
1 .But besides that, there's another reason governments like these deals.
2 .States often have trouble paying their bills, and they can use money they get from selling or leasing a piece of infrastructure to balance their budgets.
1 .<-MALE STUDENT:->That all sounds good to me.
1 .<-FEMALE PROFESSOR:->It does sound good, but a lotta people are very wary of privatizing pieces of infrastructure, and rightly so.
2 .For instance, in almost every case thus far, the first thing private companies do is drastically raise user fees because, they say: [change voice slightly] "Oh, we must do critical maintenance that's gone undone for years and years!
3 .And because we are private company, we can't use tax money to do it. Our only option is raising tolls.
1 .But what's the impact on people who use a toll road to get to work?
2 .What if a private owner doubles or triples the toll overnight?
1 .<-FEMALE STUDENT:->Uh users would hafta spend a higher percentage of their income on commuting.
1 .<-FEMALE PROFESSOR:->And depending on their income, that percentage could be significant.
1 .<-FEMALE STUDENT:->But if tolls went up...me, I'd just avoid the toll road and take smaller back roads where there aren't any tolls.
1 .<-FEMALE PROFESSOR:->That's a good point.
2 .Secondary roads would become attractive to lots of other people, too. And private companies know this.
3 .They also know that dramatic reductions in traffic would hurt their bottom line.
4 .So market forces do play a role in keeping private companies from raising their tolls too much.
5 .But the mere prospect of astronomical toll hikes is still alarming to governments when they think about selling or leasing parts of an infrastructure.
1 .Now, from a business standpoint, infrastructure purchases can be great investments.
2 .If a company buys or gets a long-term lease on a toll bridge from the government, it's got an almost guaranteed steady source of revenue for years and years.
3 .Which means that if the company decides it wants to sell the bridge to another company, say, ten years from now, it'll have no problem finding a buyer.
1 .<-FEMALE STUDENT:->But, what if that buyer, this new owner continues to charge a high toll but doesn't do the same amount of maintenance because they wanna squeeze more money out of the asset?
1 .<-FEMALE PROFESSOR:->In that case, could the government buy the asset back?
2 .Well, to do that, it would have to raise money either by raising taxes or by selling bonds, both of which are politically sensitive.
3 .So it's unclear, in a practical sense, whether these deals are truly reversible.