Supporters and critics of plans to have the private sector play a large role in running major public highways are squaring off.

Among the most vocal critics of public-private partnerships are House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and highways subcommittee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). They threw the first punch May 10 in a letter to governors, warning them “against rushing into PPPs that do not fully protect the public interest....”

But PPP defenders are firing back. Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer said he disagreed with the House lawmakers on two key points. “First, we need tolling to generate critically needed revenues for transportation,” he said. “Second, we need tolling to help us manage congestion.” Reason Foundation analysts Robert Poole and Peter Samuel criticized what they called “Oberstar and DeFazio’s misguided rush to condemn this useful, vital infrastructure tool.”

The debate continued at a May 24 hearing of DeFazio’s subcommittee. DeFazio clearly was skeptical about the merits of such deals, quizzing Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) about a possible plan to enter a long-term lease with a private entity for the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Rendell said the state has not decided what it will do, noting that a deal with a public corporation is another option. He assured DeFazio that a transaction would have safeguards.

The committee’s ranking Republican, John Mica (Fla.), said PPPs “will play a key role in solving our impending transportation funding crisis.” But he added that such transactions should not be “the only solution that we pursue.“