Christopher Lee cut his teeth on public-private partnerships 26 years ago as a Lehman Brothers executive in charge of financing projects in Asia.
He put together a consortium of local investors to build a $1.8 billion, 12-mile toll road in Bangkok. Later, as chief financial officer of the second-largest infrastructure company in Mexico, Lee built toll roads.
After a brief retirement in his mid-40s, Lee got back in the game with his own firm, Highstar Capital, which invests in infrastructure projects in the United States and Europe, such as energy plants, pipeline construction and waste management facilities.
When Congress forced Dubai to divest its interests in American ports, Highstar bought and combined them with several other like businesses, creating Ports America, the nation's largest independent terminal operating company.
In 2009, Maryland selected Ports America for a 50-year, $1.3 billion partnership to upgrade the Seagirt Marine Terminal and stay competitive on the East Coast.
Buoyed by the success, the General Assembly approved legislation last session encouraging public-private partnerships, also called P3s, for other public works projects. On Wednesday, state officials will dedicate Seagirt terminal and its four 40-story cranes.
You really like P3s, even though there are more moving parts involved because of all the government components. What's the thrill in these deals?
I'm very interested in politics, and I like making things happen. I like the complexity of a P3, and I like managing a political process in parallel with the financial process. The history of P3s in this country has not been good. There's been far more failures than successes. Politicians — and by politicians, I mean governments — and private investors don't trust each other, and they don't speak the same language. Particularly after the financial crisis, that level of distrust became much higher. I think it's pretty interesting to bring those sides together and resolve things. In Maryland, Seagirt happened — and it took a while — without a whole lot of histrionics and issues because we had a unique set of individuals in [port executive director] Jim White and Gov. [Martin] O'Malley and [Maryland Department of Transportation acting deputy secretary] Leif Dormsjo.
Why do so many P3s fail and leave both sides unhappy?
A P3 is completely different than a bunch of guys from Wall Street buying a steel mill. We didn't buy the port of Seagirt from the government and that was the end of it. Yes, Seagirt works because it's a great asset and business is good. But Seagirt is a vital, strategic part of Baltimore's identity, with jobs and economic impact — hence the partnership. If you understand what your partner's objectives are and you're attuned to them, it's like a marriage. There is a presumption that the private sector is going to steal the crown jewels and go back to New York, laughing, and government is going to have to acknowledge that it had its pockets picked. That's a very valid fear. But that's not what we're about. Yes, our investors need to have a decent return, but we're not down here to make seven times our investment. If I had bought the port of Baltimore from the state and there were no new jobs and no benefit to the state, then the state did a real bad deal even if it got a ton of money because all they did was monetize future cash flows that they would have gotten anyway. Instead, we came down here, and because we're the private sector, we were able to develop Seagirt much more quickly and much more efficiently and at a lower cost than the state. It's just a fact that the private sector is more efficient than government. Jim White got his new cranes not two years after the Panama Canal opened but two years before. And we're working those cranes, and we created 5,700 jobs. That's good political risk insurance for us. We gave them $140 million upfront, and that money has been used on new port infrastructure. And we're giving them an annual lease payment, and as business improves, they get a piece of the action. And our investors are thrilled.
Where doesn't a P3 work — or is that the kind of challenge you like?
It may be a challenge I like, but it's probably one my investors would like me not to take; after all, it is their money. There has to be a clear and definable cash flow. A P3 for a rail line that runs from Hunt Valley to the airport is not something I'm interested in because it probably doesn't cover its operating costs. If you raise the fares to make it financially viable, you're going to have a huge political firestorm and you lose your ridership. That's a project the government has to do because there's a real public good to it. If they came to us — and this is just a hypothetical — and said, "We want to build a new road, and we'll throw in the tolls from the Bay Bridge to defray that," so there's a revenue source even though you're building a new road with a startup risk, that's an interesting P3. I think privatizing transportation assets solely to raise revenues for the general fund — like they did in Chicago, trading parking meters revenue for 75 years in return for $1.15 billion to balance the books — is a really bad idea. That's taking away revenue from future governments for the present government. What Maryland and Gov. O'Malley did was see that the Seagirt money didn't go to Annapolis and into the general fund. The quarter of a billion dollars was invested in Baltimore.
It's a good problem to have, but with lots of states looking at P3s as a way out of a financial bind, do you at some point hit the saturation point where guys like you get maxed out in what you can handle?
I would [have] thought by now there would be a whole lot more of these P3s. In order to get a P3 done, you have to have leadership at the top and you need to convince the bureaucracies that this is a good thing to do. If Gov. O'Malley and I had done the Seagirt deal over the dead bodies of Jim White and everyone else, then the day we took delivery, Jim and the people of MDOT would have been doing everything possible to sabotage us. I wouldn't do a deal like that. I think a lot of states haven't hit the formula to be successful. They talk about it. We only want to do deals where there's value added. We're not interested in buying I-95 from here to Philadelphia just for the sake of owning it, because you're just monetizing an asset.
You recently got the nod to privatize the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the first under a Federal Aviation Administration pilot program. Are there other things in Maryland you're interested in?
Well, we'd like to take a look at the airport. I haven't discussed with them what they're interested in doing because the presumption is if they're interested, we'll get one of the first calls, anyway.
Occupation: Founder of Highstar Capital, an infrastructure investment firm managing more than $5 billion dollars in assets
Education: Bachelor's degree in history from Johns Hopkins University, 1974Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun