CHICAGO - Michigan could partner with private companies to build or operate its highways and bridges to boost badly needed transportation revenue under a bill being considered by the Legislature.

The Senate and House transportation committees joined with the transportation appropriation subcommittees Tuesday for the first in what could be three hearings on legislation that would allow the Michigan Department of Transportation to enter into long-term leases with private companies using a pledge of toll revenues.

HB 4961 would also allow MDOT to issue bonds to finance public-private projects and impose tolls on new or privately operated roads and bridges.

The P3 hearings come after a year of lobbying by advocates - including a governor-appointed task force that spent a year studying the state's transportation system - who are pushing for the state to change the way it funds its transportation system.

P3s are one of several new revenue sources that advocates recommend. Others include increasing the gas tax and giving local governments the option to tax to finance local projects.

A vote on the bill could come in the next two weeks, some legislative sources said, but a larger debate over dueling proposals to build a bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, threatens to delay voting on the bill.

A pair of executives from the Federal Highway Administration joined a P3 consultant at the hearing yesterday, held in a packed room in the House building in Lansing.

Legislators expressed some concerns over P3s - including foreign ownership of state assets - but the main debate remained how P3 authority would impact the dueling proposals to build a replacement of the Ambassador Bridge, said Keith Ledbetter, a lobbyist and legislative affairs director with the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association.

MDOT "would like authorization to look at opportunities across the state," Ledbetter said. "Unfortunately, we have this big Ambassador Bridge debate that colors a lot of what's happening on this."

A four-way partnership between the U.S. and Canadian, Michigan, and Ontario governments is pushing for construction of a $1.8 billion bridge, called the Detroit River International Crossing, that would be built and operated as a public-private partnership.

The proposed bridge would be located just down river from the aging Ambassador Bridge, a privately owned bridge that is currently the only bridge spanning what is the country's busiest trade route. Local businessman Matty Maroun, who owns the Ambassador Bridge, has his own plan to build a $1 billion replacement span.

State and local legislators have debated the plans for years, and some say the new P3 authorization would allow MDOT to begin work on the government bridge immediately.

"MDOT believes we need P3 legislation regardless of what happens with the Ambassador Bridge project," Ledbetter said.

"This is the third budget in a row that they've had this particular fight," he added. "There's a risk that the [fiscal 2010] budget will not be approved by the deadline because of this."

If legislators don't vote on the P3 legislation before Oct. 1 - the start of Michigan's new fiscal year - they are likely to consider it later in the session as transportation advocates continue to push for new funding sources.

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