The first meeting of the US Conference of Mayors P3 Task Force was more than just a welcome and familiarization event: chair Andre Dickens wasted no time, by announcing the creation of a new ‘P3 Institute’ to improve understanding and expertise among mayors and their staff.
Dickens, who is also mayor of Atlanta, stressed the importance of collaboration and recognized the need to deliver infrastructure “better, faster, cheaper”.
The new P3 Institute, which will hold 12 regional sessions throughout the year and will be delivered in partnership with the Association for the Improvement of American Infrastructure (AIAI), is an important step in that direction, designed to help people in positions of authority at a local level make informed choices about how to procure their infrastructure.
Education is now a key topic in the infrastructure space - particularly in relation to supporting public officials to help them navigate the options that they are faced with. The hope is that this new entity will allow more local projects to get off the ground - away from the large, state-run projects that are being supported by federal dollars via the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA) or the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
Not only could cities benefit from new projects, but if their leaders are properly trained in understanding the infrastructure landscape, they may be able to put together a pipeline of projects that are not going to fall at the first hurdle.
Too often, around the world, projects continue to be subject to a large slice of political risk, which jeopardizes both the chance of them getting to the tender stage, and the likelihood that a private partner will be willing to jump on board if a scheme is tendered.
In fact, while the P3 Institute was being unveiled, across the Pond there was a shining example of the importance of educating public officials on infrastructure investment. In the UK, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had spent weeks denying that any decision had been made to cancel the country’s flagship high Speed Two (HS2) line - only to ‘reveal’ just that course of action in his speech to the Conservative Party conference.
A project that had been 15 years in the making has been severely stunted - a section that is already in progress will be delivered, but some have estimated that the cost of work carried out on various parts of the line that have now been canceled amounts to over £30bn (US$36.5bn).
A big part of the problem here has been the inability of industry to convince politicians that investment is better than stopping a project because of increasing costs. There’s no doubt that the announcement has further damaged the UK’s reputation as a stable and safe environment in which investors can put their cash, with expectations dashed that HS2 stations would become destinations for regeneration.
Another failing in the UK around HS2 is in the government’s refusal to contemplate private finance for the scheme itself. One politician, the day before the formal announcement, called on the government to look to the private sector to provide innovative ways to deliver the scheme for less money. That call fell on deaf ears.
Would a body politic that had been more effectively educated on the benefits of private finance, and of the wider importance of infrastructure as an investment for growth, still stopped HS2? It is, of course, impossible to say: as always, there are many competing factors that led to the decision - not least the political pressure to cut spending during a cost of living crisis.
However, better education across the political spectrum over the past decade should have enabled a more holistic infrastructure strategy that could survive the whims of different leaders (and remember, HS2 has gone from being the ‘Next Big Thing’ to canceled under different leaders from the same political party).
The good news for the US market is that it already has some strong foundations. The AIAI has long been advocating for the benefits of infrastructure investment generally, and more recently has been supporting public officials through its certification program. You can hear more about the AIAI’s work in this episode of our 3Ps in a Pod podcast.
Similarly, we have seen this education role taken on in Canada by the Canadian Council for PPPs (CCPPP), which has worked tirelessly over the years to ensure politicians from across the political spectrum have an understanding of what P3 is - and, perhaps just as importantly, is not - capable of delivering.
With more projects emerging across the US, in a variety of sectors, maintaining the momentum and ensuring projects do not fall victim to politics is critical. And as those projects proliferate, it’s no longer simply a case of teaching those in the state Departments of Transportation about good infrastructure procurement - which is why the P3 institute, with its focus on mayors and their staff, is an important and potentially groundbreaking step forward for American infrastructure.