President-elect Donald Trump has promised to rebuild America’s airports, bridges, tunnels, roads and other infrastructure, something both Democrats and Republicans agree should be done. The country needs a full $3 trillion in infrastructure over the next decade. The $1 trillion plan revealed by Trump’s economic advisers relies heavily on public-private partnerships, and private equity firms are lining up for these plumbing investments. In the typical private equity water deal, for example, higher user rates help the firms earn annual returns of anywhere from 8 to 18 percent – more even than a regular for-profit water company might expect. But the price tag can come as a rude surprise for local ratepayers.
Private equity investment now generates an average return of about 11.8% annually on a 10-year basis. For infrastructure investment, those profits are made on tolls and fees paid by the public. Even at simple interest, that puts the cost to the public of financing $1 trillion in infrastructure projects at $1.18 trillion, more than doubling the cost. Cities often make these desperate deals because they are heavily in debt and the arrangement can give them cash up front. But as a 2008 Government Accountability Office report warned, “there is no ‘free’ money in public-private partnerships.” Local residents wind up picking up the tab.