February 4th, 2007

Not Just One N.J. Road to Riches From Assets

By Jennifer Moroz
Philadelphia Inquirer

The state is also weighing the lottery and transit sites. Reaction is mixed.

The New Jersey Turnpike gets all the attention.

But the state is weighing whether to cash in other assets, too.

Depending on the results of a study commissioned by Gov. Corzine, New Jersey officials could decide to lease the Garden State Parkway or Atlantic City Expressway to a private operator that would collect tolls.

They are also contemplating handing lottery operations - and revenue - to the private sector under a similar deal. Development rights at NJ Transit stations could be up for grabs, too.

And that’s just the A List.

For years, public officials have experimented with privatization to deliver services more cheaply and efficiently. But around the country, cash-strapped governments increasingly are looking to deals with the private sector to make big money, fast, to fund major infrastructure projects or pay down debt without raising taxes.

Corzine, a former Wall Street executive, calls it “asset monetization.” Others call it asset leveraging.

Jerold Kayden, who has researched public-private partnerships, calls it “a ferocious search for money in a ferocious time.”

“At a time when the demands on government are high, there is an attempt to create as much revenue as possible from anything that exists,” said Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at Harvard University. “You’re willing to mortgage just about anything.”

Toll-road deals, which have already generated billions of dollars for governments in the United States, have emerged as “one of the biggest opportunities,” said Geoffrey Segal, who tracks privatization as director of government reform for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian-leaning think tank in California.

But, he added, “the sky’s the limit if you’re creative.”

Politicians, it seems, are getting more and more creative.

Tiny Clark, Texas, “sold” its name in 2005 in return for free satellite service for its 125 residents. The town now goes by DISH.

Following in the footsteps of officials in Canada and Australia, Chicago and Indiana struck toll-road deals in which a private consortium paid $1.8 billion for the 7.8-mile Chicago Skyway and $3.8 billion for the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road to take over operations and toll collections for decades to come. Pennsylvania has solicited bids for a similar deal for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, while Chicago is considering privatizing Midway Airport. And taking a page from officials in Europe, Indiana and Illinois are weighing leasing their lotteries long-term.

In New Jersey, Corzine has asked UBS Investment Bank to review all of the state’s assets to determine which could make for viable, lucrative private-sector deals.

A preliminary study listed the three toll roads, building rights at transit stops, and the lottery as having the greatest potential in the near term. It concluded that officials also should continue to study privatization of Atlantic City International Airport and the sale of naming rights to state facilities, among several other items.

State Treasurer Brad Abelow said officials were looking everywhere to find new sources of revenue to help the state overcome years of borrowing and financial mismanagement. New Jersey carries $29.7 billion in debt, and this year is paying $2.5 billion - 8 percent of state spending - on that debt.

“We started this because we have huge capital needs as a state, and we really are constrained in our budget by our level of indebtedness,” Abelow said.

By making a major dent in the state’s debt, officials could free up billions of dollars to fund long-term capital projects, even much-needed property-tax relief, Corzine has said.

But critics say the type of deals New Jersey is weighing may come at too great a cost.

Talk of leasing the turnpike has prompted a lot of concern. Experts on such transactions say the state could get more than $20 billion for the turnpike and parkway, which are operated jointly and bring in more than $700 million in tolls a year. But critics worry that a private operator would increase tolls and allow maintenance to slip, and in a Quinnipiac University poll, 53 percent of 1,310 New Jersey voters questioned Jan. 16-22 said they opposed such a lease deal. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Privatizing lottery operations, which generate a profit of more than $850 million, has not received much attention in New Jersey. But it has in the Midwest.

Govs. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois and Mitch Daniels of Indiana are trying to sell lawmakers and the public on the idea as a way to fund expensive education initiatives.

Blagojevich figures that the state could get between $10 billion and $15 billion for a long-term private lease of its lottery, which last year showed a $670.5 million profit.

In Indiana, Daniels is hoping to get $1 billion upfront and at least $200 million a year to lease the lottery, which last year brought in $218 million.

Experts on such private-public deals say proceeds should go toward long-term financial goals such as paying down debt or investing in infrastructure.

Corzine has vowed to do just that, saying “under no circumstances will asset-monetization proceeds be used as a one-time budget fix to cover routine operating expenses.”

Getting ahead of criticism, the governor promised to defend the public’s interest. He said any deal should allow the state to retain a say over its assets and regulate service standards, and should contain safeguard against outrageous fee increases.

Selling naming rights to public facilities would likely be among the simplest transactions the state is considering. But that idea, too, has a lot of detractors.

Gary Ruskin, who cofounded the Oregon-based Commercial Alert with civic crusader Ralph Nader, is one of the biggest.

Naming public assets after companies, he argues, flies in the face of the American tradition of naming them after historical and civic figures. It also represents a government’s “explicit endorsement of a company and its product,” he said.

On Auction Block?

Gov. Corzine has asked for a review of all state assets to determine which ones officials might lease, sell, or otherwise cash in on through deals with the private sector. A preliminary study by UBS Investment Bank identified this short list of assets worthy of further consideration.

Tier 1

Considered most viable for a deal in the near term.

New Jersey Turnpike

Garden State Parkway

Atlantic City Expressway

Lottery

Development rights at NJ Transit stations

Tier 2

Could produce successful deals in the longer term after more study.

Naming rights to public facilities

Atlantic City International Airport

State fiber-optic network

Toll rights on existing and future roadways

PNC Bank Arts Center

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