Meet the architects

Rick Geist and Gregory Grasa walk Cezary Podkul through the PPP bill they are crafting in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Step into Pennsylvania Representative Rick Geist’s office in the state capitol and you’re sure to leave with the impression that, if anyone will sponsor a transportation PPP bill in this building, it will be him.

There’s the story of him going on vacation with his family to Sydney and stopping by the worldwide headquarters of the Macquarie Group while his wife and children went shopping; or the time
he rented a car in Los Angeles just because he wanted to see what it was like to drive on a private

Rick Geist

Dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, he didn’t get the warmest welcome from the Macquarie receptionist on duty. But that hasn’t shaken the folksy Blair County Republican’s belief that PPPs can help Pennsylvania deliver better infrastructure for its 12.6 million inhabitants.

“It’s a concept that, when it takes off and it goes, they will say, ‘why didn’t you do this in the 60s?’” Geist says.

Still, being late to the game has its benefits. “As a piece of legislation, we kind of stole the very best from everybody so it’s probably more up to speed than any other statute
in America,” he says.

Among the spoils is a provision to allow the state to pursue both solicited proposals (those it’s asked for) as well as unsolicited ones (those proposed without a prior request).

“I want to make sure that one of the things that can happen is that unsoliciteds can come in and they aren’t shunned,” he says. That’s because “there are guys out there who have a lot better
ideas than we have”, Geist adds.

I want to make sure that one of the things that can happen is that unsoliciteds can come in and they aren't shunned

Rick Geist

And whether solicited or not, each proposal will be able to get a fair hearing thanks to an independent, 8-member “Public Private Transportation Board” that will evaluate its merits.

“They would have to come before the board, present the proposal, and a board composed of qualified professionals . . . will have to decide, ‘do we want to pursue that?” explains Gregory
Grasa, the policy analyst in charge of the bill.

Grasa puts special emphasis on “qualified”.

“It can’t be cronies,” he insists. “It has to be expertise in finance, law, transportation. In fact I’m vying to put in stronger language saying ‘engaged in private enterprise’ so we don’t get a
roomful of bureaucrats who don’t understand the merits of the project.”

The bill is also flexible enough to allow for both greenfield, or new construction projects, and
brownfields, or leases of existing transportation assets. But there’s one important caveat: the proceeds from any lease “shall be available exclusively  to provide funding for transportation needs” in the state, according to the bill.

The provision may seem innocuous to the untrained eye. But in the world of PPPs, where
everyone worries about funds being squandered on budget gaps or pet projects, it’s nothing short
of a consensus builder.

“This was the key element that everyone agreed on for years,” Grasa said.

As a result, the bill – now in its third iteration – is ready for prime time. The main obstacle is getting it through the State Senate, where it hasn’t moved as quickly. Republicans in the Senate have indicated they would prefer to wait until the next governor arrives before they move on any transportation funding legislation.

So Geist may have to introduce the bill for a fourth time next year. If the bill does eventually pass, it will transform Pennsylvania’s transportation landscape into something akin to “Macy’s sale with everything half off,” Geist predicts. “There will be a lot of sharp elbows,” he predicts.