The privatization of public services and infrastructure has become one of the hot topics of urban debate. The reason is easy to find: in this new economy, states and cities are strapped for funds, and privatization looks like a very timely windfall.
For experts who have looked at the question of privatization, the verdict so far seems to be -- maybe yes, maybe no. Privatization can be a potent tool not only for raising needed cash but for improving public services. But it's not something to rush into. The fine print must be read.
Privatization isn't exactly new. Margaret Thatcher privatized the British Airports Authority in the '80s. Germany has been privatizing part of its national health system, including hospitals. Formerly socialist governments that once owned the "commanding heights" of their economies have been selling off steel mills, railroads and electric grids for years. The Bush Administration even privatized part of the U.S. military, turning to contractors like Blackwater to do part of our fighting in Iraq.
But the new privatization by cities and states is different. So far, it mostly involves the sale of infrastructure, like highways or airports, or more likely their leasing on long-term contracts. Chicago has been a leader in this with its granting of a 99-year lease for the Chicago Skyway, a bridge connecting the city's south side to the Indiana Toll Road; its failed attempt to lease Midway, one of the city's two main airports, and most controversially, its 75-year lease of the city's parking system.