Defining the ‘Public’ in Public-Private Partnerships

In a must-read piece for the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), Matt Lewis digs deeper into the network of cities and towns that employ D.C. transportation. He begins with a thought-provoking anecdote:

ibmribboncutting.jpgA ribbon-cutting in Dubuque, IA, for IBM's new tech center. (Photo: Gazette)
Last September, city fathers in Dubuque, Iowa, lured three members of the White House cabinet to the banks of the Mississippi River on the same day they welcomed officials from one the world’s biggest corporations, IBM. ...

Meanwhile, Dubuque’s private sector guest, IBM, was over at the convention center announcing plans to make the city a living laboratory for its Smarter Planet program. Up to 1,300 new IBM employees will begin fielding tech service calls later this year at the Roshek building, and the company hopes those workers will also be able to enjoy the fruits of a sweeping partnership between IBM and its host city — a partnership aimed at creating an integrated transportation system involving smart new bus routes, pedestrian-friendly streets, and arterial roads to take trucks out of neighborhoods.

It sounds positively idyllic, but there is, of course, a catch.

That catch was a $50 million federal investment -- and though it would be technically correct to say Dubuque was seeking a handout from Washington, it's in good company. More than 650 localities have lobbyists chasing federal transportation funding on their behalf, according to the CPI.

So perhaps Dubuque's quest is simply part of the un-grand scheme by which transportation money flows to states and metro areas. But with the city offering a reported $22 million in incentives to attract a deal with IBM, which has already started work on its new tech service center, is the federal government the right partner for the project?

Thinking broadly, Dubuque's type of public-private partnership would be a natural fit for the National Infrastructure Bank that is attracting new momentum as part of the Capitol Hill job-creation push. If a city and a company need help financing a project that promises to be the first step in an urban revitalization, that funding should be easier to get than it is now -- from private as well as public sources.