As I listened to S&P Global’s Anne Selting at a Governing event earlier this year describe how public-private partnerships work, I had a sort of epiphany. “If Metro in Washington, D.C., were a P3,” I asked her, “would it still be falling apart right now?” She replied that, while S&P’s role is not to opine on public policy, her answer would be a qualified no. Under a P3 structure, she explained, the concession grantor, typically a government, is contractually committed to a funding regime that provides for adequate maintenance.
Maintenance -- the lack of it, that is -- is at the heart of the crisis facing the Washington region’s transit system. In the past year it has had several serious maintenance-related smoke and fire incidents, including one that resulted in a passenger’s death. Train delays and equipment failures, such as escalators and elevators not working, are an everyday reality for riders. With the subway system facing an $18 billion capital deficit over the next 10 years, fixing these problems will be extraordinarily difficult.