Given the need and the cash-strapped status of government agencies, some are suggesting contracting with private firms to do the repair work and run our highways:
America, the land of the free, has been more hostile to free-market infrastructure than the rest of the world. In Europe, Australia, Canada and emerging markets such as Brazil, the private sector has jumped in to build new roads, bridges, tunnels and airports.
Private groups usually make an upfront payment, manage the assets and get toll revenue under leases that span 75 years or more.
In the U.S., the federal government provides much funding for repairs and new projects. When Uncle Sam is tapped out, state and local governments turn to the bond market.
With government debt soaring, though, public interest groups have pushed another option -- gas-tax hikes. Critics charge privately run toll roads could gouge consumers.
Political battles lay ahead, but supporters of private funding say more deals will be struck.
Back in the 1800s, Henry Clay's Whig Party advocated "internal improvements," by which they meant the construction of roads, canals, and railroad, what we call infrastructure. While Clay never became President and the Whigs died, only to morph into the Republican Party, the development and maintenance of infrastructure has been seen as a function of the government for the past two-plus centuries. (The young Illinois Whig politician, Abraham Lincoln, later the first Republican President, always ran on a platform that included "internal improvements" as a key plank.)
There's an argument to be made that in the initation of new services or technologies--from postal delivery to space exploration and infrastructure, the government has a unique responsibility. But, this argument continues, after establishing the feasibility of such projects, the government may be ill-suited to bring vast improvements or cost effectiveness to them.
Some form of private-public partnership may be the wave of the future when it comes to America's infrastructure. It is ironic that Europe, far more comfortable with big government policies, has gotten free enterprise so extensively involved in the construction and operation of highways, bridges, airports, and ports, while America's infrastructure is almost exclusively the purview of government entities.
As long as the memory of the I-35 tragedy remains in people's minds, the discussion of infrastructure needs and how to meet them will likely increase in the future. (So too will some of the widely-questioned strategies and decisions of the Army Corps of Engineers when it comes to New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and the Mississippi River.)