Privatizing the Turnpike?

Privatizing the Turnpike?
October 22, 2006 New Jersey - NYTIMES
Until Gov. Jon Corzine raised the subject, talk in New Jersey of selling off or leasing the turnpike and some of the state’s other assets was not going anywhere. After all, the state’s privatization of its auto inspection system and its early experience with E-ZPass were hardly smashing successes. But Mr. Corzine, with his background in the business world, gave the idea immediate credibility.

At the Corzine administration’s behest, a financial services company is studying the situation and is expected to make recommendations next month. A State Treasury spokesman, Thomas Vincz, said last week that just about everything is on the table, including the sale, partial sale and management of numerous highways in addition to the turnpike and of other state assets as well.

Without much national attention, privatization of public assets is suddenly on a roll. Early last year, the eight-mile Chicago Skyway was leased for 99 years to an international consortium. Indiana recently turned over its 157-mile turnpike to the same group for 75 years. Virginia has announced it will lease a toll road, and Pennsylvania is considering public-private partnerships for two of its highways. Chicago just sold its parking garages. Interestingly, countries in western Europe, which are hardly known as hotbeds of free enterprise, have long had private-public partnerships operating toll roads.

It is too soon to know how the American ventures will work out, but in New Jersey, there are all sorts of valid reasons to exercise caution. In the 1990’s, the state’s auto inspection system was besieged with equipment failures and long lines of angry car owners after it was turned over to a private operator. The privatized E-ZPass system started off with thousands of erroneous violation notices.

At a minimum, Mr. Corzine must make certain there are checks against exorbitant toll or price increases and poor maintenance. He must also build in safeguards to make sure greedy politicians do not somehow manage to benefit, either by getting jobs from the operators of privatized facilities or from outright kickbacks. After all, this is New Jersey.

It may be that the kind of public-private partnerships that officials have in mind can help New Jersey and its beleaguered taxpayers, and that the proceeds can be spent wisely. But officials should also bear in mind, especially when it comes to the generally well-run turnpike, that if something is not broke, it is generally not wise to fix it.

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