Out of Control Policy Blog

Chesapeake, VA Pursuing PPP Toll Bridge

In addition to the Midtown Tunnel/MLK extension PPP project I discussed here the other day, the city of Chesapeake, VA is evaluating an unsolicited proposal to rebuild the recently-closed, 80-year old Jordan Bridge across the Elizabeth River through a PPP. According to TollRoadsNews.com:

A bridge-builder and private investors are promising to do what City officials in Chesapeake Virginia thought was impossible - replace a decrepit 80 year old draw bridge with a modern high level structure at no cost to taxpayers. And they say they can get the new bridge open within 18 months. The old Jordan Bridge, a multi-truss iron span close by the water of the Elizabeth River with a high lift span for shipping was permanently closed to vehicular traffic the lift span in the 'up' position November 8, after progressively more restrictive weight limits were imposed in recent years to avert a collapse of the heavily rusted ironwork.

The investors Figg Bridge well-known bridge builders, and Britton Hill Partners LLC (BHP) a private investment company are asking to be granted title to the old bridge and the land it stands on in return for an undertaking to replace it with a modern high level bridge. This is a replay of the way the original bridge was built in the mid-1920s and the way most major bridges were built in the US in 19th century - by investors who bought land and owned the assets outright and operated them as a transportation business. [...]

City of Chesapeake mayor Alan Krasnoff has welcomed the investor offer saying it is a "wonderful Christmas present" to the people of the region who with the closure of the old lift bridge have been facing increasingly circuitous journeys and greater congestion on parallel routes.

The Jordan Bridge connects southern Norfolk with southern Plymouth over an estuarial section of the Elizabeth River that is 600m (2000ft) wide in an industrial and port area. Norfolk Naval Ship Yards employing some 15,000 people are located immediately on the west side of the bridge. The river forms part of the Intra Coastal Waterway and the old bridge was typically raised 20 to 30 times per day (10,000 lifts/year) for about 22,000 vessel passages a year (an average 60/day) seriously limiting its availability to car traffic. The allowed weight on the bridge was progressively reduced and for the last 12 years was posted at 2.7t (6000pds, 3 short tons). So worried was the City about the bridge collapsing from an overweight vehicle after receiving the last engineering report that from the early summer they posted an inspector each end of the bridge to turn back overweight vehicles.

Under their proposal to the City the investors would take full responsibility for financing, building and operating the new bridge, including purchase of some extra right of way needed and would remove the existing abandoned bridge. As joint owners and operators of the new bridge they would have the right to the tolls. They would be committed to expanding the capacity of the bridge in line with demand.

Many more details here. Yet another example of PPPs coming to the rescue and delivering new solutions to tricky challenges. And though the bulk of transportation PPP discussion focuses on the state level (necessarily, given the scale of state road and bridge systems), this article is a nice reminder that local governments also face similar opportunities to upgrade and modernize their transportation systems through partnering with the private sector.

Let's break it down and get real for a minute. If I'm an official in Chesapeake, and some consortium comes in and says "you guys have a dead bridge and just lost a river crossing, why don't we build you a new one? and btw, we'll pay for it."—at that point, I'm all ears. But officials elsewhere shouldn't just sit around and wait for the private sector to come calling. They should be mining their balance sheets for assets to divest, that need replacement, etc., and then start courting investors/builders/operators. Let's go guys (clap clap)—the budget shortfalls aren't getting any smaller, nor are the infrastructure needs.

» Reason's Annual Privatization Report 2008
» Reason's Transportation Research and Commentary

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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