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The Public-Private Indiana Toll Road Is in Trouble

An innovative public-private partnership is deep in debt

Eleven million trucks. That’s how many 18-wheelers needed to rumble across northern Indiana in 2010 for the state’s 157-mile toll road to break even. Unfortunately, only about half that many did and the road came up $209 million short. This sounds like the beginning of yet another story about recession-ravaged states bleeding cash. And it is, sort of. The twist is that the Indiana Toll Road is managed not by the state but by a group of corporate investors, part of a public-private partnership experiment intended to show how businesses can help government run more efficiently and save taxpayers money—all while turning a profit.

President Barack Obama and politicians from both parties have held up such private sector alliances as a model for the future, as cities and states find it increasingly difficult to shoulder the enormous cost of building and maintaining roads and bridges. California, Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, and Georgia are all courting investors, hoping to strike deals in which corporations will assume some of the expense and risk in exchange for a share in the profits. This moneyloser in Indiana shows how difficult it can be to apply business principles to sprawling public projects.