Intelligently Shared Risk in Infrastructure Spending
One of the few national issues on which there is near-universal agreement is the state of roads, bridges, dams, airports, and railroads in the U.S. – invariably described as “crumbling.”
There is also broad bipartisan consensus on the need and indeed value of capital spending. The devil is in the details, as liberals tend to favor big-ticket government-led projects while conservatives advocate varieties of tax credits and other private-sector inducements.
Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) seem like a proven way to bridge the gap and actually get things done. The approach has been highly successful in Canada, and also to a modest degree in the U.S. A program across Pennsylvania to rebuild rural bridges is a notable example.
For all their many attractive features, P3s raise several important risk and insurance questions. At the tactical level, builders risk and surety bonding have to be reassessed project by project.
More strategically, the success of P3s has been built around the essential element of tying operational and maintenance costs and revenues into the capital expensive of design and construction.
Those risk management questions were addressed at a seminar May 10 in New York held by law firms, the U.S.-based Haynes & Boone and Gowling WLG, based in Canada.
“The models tend to look at P3s in just two ways,” said Gilbert D. Porter, partner with Haynes & Boone in New York.
“Either the availability/capacity concept, where payments are made regardless of use, [such as if private investors fund part of a hospital or school] or the performance-based or concession model where there is right to operate but revenues come from use [such as for a toll road or light-rail system].
“The problem with the second is that it often confuses elements of appropriate market risk and government responsibility. What needs to be explored is some sort of sharing of risk, versus just allocating.”
Porter explained that the appeal of the concession model is because it is often non-recourse to the government unless the government takes actions that could be considered competitive or otherwise detrimental to the concession. That is where disputes and litigation arise.
“But there are ways of sharing risk that do not lump it all one way or the other. One example is a collar, where a minimum return is guaranteed by the government (if availability standards are met) and there is a sharing of upside return between the project sponsor and the government.
“That is just one idea, but if in the U.S. we are going to continue favoring the concession model (as opposed to the availability model that is prevalent in Canada) then all parties — government, investors, and contractors — have to start thinking about ways of sharing risk in ways that balance the strengths of the private sponsors with governmental responsibility.
“Otherwise you just end up trying to push risk onto the private sector. And private sector is going to find ways to push back.”
According to data compiled by Gowling, the majority of P3 projects in Canada over the past 15 years have been in health care, with the next most in transportation.
Darryl J. Brown, partner with Gowling, noted that before the P3 approach became common in Canada, roughly half of government infrastructure projects were completed over budget and a year late. Of the P3 projects identified, about 97 percent were completed on time and on budget.