Promises, promises, but it does seem likely that the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s plan for funding the rest of rail will be announced in the coming months. Most likely, it will involve a public-private partnership, or what’s known in government-speak as a PPP.
Will this plan be effective, or will it be another dud? To answer this question, you need to understand that a PPP is really two things.
It’s a fiscal tool of course. But PPP is also a marketing device very much like the engine additive Techron. As in “Chevron — with Techron!”
There are a gazillion kinds of PPPs used all over the world. They’ve become a kind of macroeconomic conventional wisdom.
Boiled down, they are arrangements by which the private sector assumes some of the costs and burdens of a public project in exchange for down-the-road revenues. In HART’s case, the private partner would, in addition to financing the remainder of the construction, get rights to operate the system for 30 years.
That’s the nuts and bolts — CPA, green eye shade, sharpened pencil stuff. The kind of scrutiny that you hope your tax person uses on your returns but that the IRS does not.
The term “PPP” has also become a powerfully resonant term that induces political magic and upends our critical faculties.
And that’s where Techron comes in.
Right now, you can see “Techron 25th Anniversary” signs at every Texaco station. Chevron originally developed Techron. It became part of Texaco after Chevron and Texaco merged.
Techron is an additive. An additive is supposed to be a positive thing. It is added to something to improve or preserve it, in this case car performance.
There are some measurement standards of “top tier performance,” created by car companies, that are used to decide whether that stuff really works.
But what’s ultimately important for Texaco/Chevron is not the science but rather the sales. It’s all about pushing product.
The idea was to get us consumers to remember the Techron name and have positive feelings about it. Nothing odd or insidious about that. That is how good marketing is supposed to work.
The word “Techron” has marketing magic. It became part of a very successful advertising campaign featuring that earwormy catch phrase:
“Chevron — with Techron!”
Magic Marketing Slogan
A Techron-like mystique has also developed about public-private partnerships. They are seen as political additives — put them into a policy mix and good things are bound to happen. If it’s a PPP, it’s got to be good.
Well of course that claim is not literally true. The research on public-private partnerships shows that some are great, some are awful, and others are OK, or the best that can be done under the circumstances.
The point I am making here, though, is not whether they work.
Rather it’s that Hawaii’s politicians use the term “PPP” all the time as this marketing magic in order to sugar up their proposals for large, expensive, scary projects.
A new football stadium in Halawa? Not to worry. We are going to do it with a public-private partnership. Total refurbishment of Blaisdell? Relax. It’s a PPP.
Advocates of PPPs — and this certainly includes HART — want you to think about them as political additives, the very presence of which should foster reassurance and trust.
All of HART CEO Andrew Robbins’ statements about the forthcoming plan come down to this: “It’s a PPP. Rail’s finally gonna happen!”
Wouldn’t that be a relief. Exactly.
The more independent assessments the better.
PPP as a catch phrase:
“HART — with PPP!”
So assessing public-private partnerships requires thorough nuts-and-bolts analysis while at the same time maintaining a healthy skepticism countering the urge to suspend disbelief and succumb to the PPP magic.
It is fair to say that given rail’s past history of false promises and obfuscation, HART deserves an especially tough-minded evaluation with very little trust but an exceptional amount of steely, independent verification.
Help is available. There is literature on assessing PPPs as well as people who know how to do the necessary number crunching and cost-benefit analysis.
The World Bank and The Balance, a business website, have come up with checklists to evaluate these partnerships.
Some of the potential trouble spots that these sources indicate — for instance, a small number of bidders and unequal bargaining power between the public and private partners — pertain directly to rail.
Obviously, we can’t rely on HART for this assessment. What are the HART officials going to say, the plan stinks?
Mixed Record Of Oversight
Some of our politicians will take a crack at it. That’s a good thing, up to a point. For the most part — and I say this out of sympathy, not critique — public officials have been as duped and befuddled by rail as the rest of us.
So for sure the plan will require independent evaluators. The feds will do this because they will not release the remaining federal money unless the plan passes the test.
The more independent assessments the better. Here is another good model.
From the outset the editors understood that their reporters needed help understanding the complexities of public pensions.
So they hired pension experts from the private sector to work with the investigative reporters. The resulting stories were dynamite, leading to prison time, resignations and voter recalls.
Most of us lack the skills or interest to go deeply into the PPP weeds. However, all of us can and should inure ourselves to PPPs as magical thinking.
HART officials may indeed come up with the answer this time. But these rail people also may turn out to be, borrowing from a much older fuel commercial, Merry Texaco men who turn out to be just show men.
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Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.