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When it comes to fixing highways, are we on the right road?

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I knew things were getting strange when the Pennsylvania Turnpike started advertising.

Maybe you haven't seen the TV spot, which obviously wasn't prompted by the massive competition the turnpike faces from other overpriced toll roads. The ad features a father and son talking about all the job opportunities the turnpike provides. It may be the first commercial ever to build a positive brand from nepotism and patronage.

But if you were wondering why the turnpike was filling airwaves instead of potholes, the answer just became clear. On May 19, Gov. Ed Rendell announced a plan to make the Turnpike Commission largely redundant, even by Harrisburg standards.

Rendell wants to lease the turnpike to a Spanish firm, Abertis Infraestructuras, for $12.8 billion. Actually, I'm not sure "lease" is the right word: The deal is supposed to last 75 years, which is longer than the road itself has been in existence. But the deal supposedly limits how high Abertis can raise tolls, and protects the turnpike's unionized workers -- at least until their contract expires.

State legislators are likely to fight the idea anyway, so the most immediate effect of Rendell's announcement will be grumbling about foreigners buying up our national inheritance. First Kennywood, now the turnpike ... what priceless heirloom will they take next? The sewers?

Too late. Remember the Elizabeth Township Sanitary Authority? The folks who dumped untreated sewage into the Youghiogheny River last winter and fall? The sewage-treatment facility was operated by a private company, Veolia Water, owned by the French. (Strangely, I don't recall any of the "Press 1 for English" crowd screaming about that. Maybe it's OK to deluge us with merde, as long as we're not being flooded with immigrants who speak your language.)

But hating on foreigners misses the point. When things are this screwed up, we should save some blame for ourselves.

Rendell desperately needs money to improve our transportation infrastructure. His original plan, charging tolls on I-80, is going nowhere, so he hopes now that by investing the $12.8 billion, he could generate an estimated $1.1 billion. Which means we're essentially giving up our highway system so we can play the market.

And it is a gamble: By my calculations, Rendell is counting on a return of roughly 8.5 percent a year. That seems like a lot, and Rendell has overestimated returns before: When he first proposed the turnpike lease last year, he estimated the turnpike could fetch as much as $30 billion.

Still, over the past few decades, stocks in the S&P 500 have returned an average of more than 11 percent, and it's hard to be sympathetic to the Turnpike Commission, which warns of raising tolls on the turnpike, but warmly embraces putting tolls on I-80.

They're not the only ones with a double standard. In March, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review quoted state Rep. Joseph Markosek (D-Monroeville) opposing the turnpike privatization. "A public entity can raise money cheaper ... than a private entity," he claimed.

Or not: Just a month before, Markosek, the House transportation committee chair, urged the commission to study "public-private partnerships" to complete the Mon-Fayette Expressway -- a new toll-road that the Turnpike Commission has been trying to build for a half-century. So apparently, we can trust the private sector with financing new roads, but not with managing current ones.

Of course, expressway backers are simply desperate to build the new highway, just as Rendell is desperate to repair the old ones. And like Pennsylvania drivers charging $3.80/gallon gasoline to their credit cards, they have to get the money to do so from someone else.

Recent years have been great if you're a multinational corporation. But thanks partly to capital moving abroad, and to political shortsightedness at home, our infrastructure has been rotting. The problems are now so widespread that public officials can only suggest relying on global conglomerates -- the same people who've thrived while everything else has decayed.

So those turnpike ads make a point after all. If someone is going to get a sweetheart deal from our highways, why not the heavy-equipment operator next door, rather than the hedge-fund manager in Manhattan or Zurich?

And highways are just the beginning: On the same day Rendell proposed the Abertis lease, Allegheny County's sewer authority told a state legislative panel that repairing the county's sewers would cost well over $1 billion. No one knows where that money will come from either.

Maybe we can ask the French.

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