From Puerto Rico to Oakland, a New York Private Equity Firm Is Gaining Control Over Critical U.S. Infrastructure

In February of this year the main airport of Puerto Rico was privatized under a deal that allows a New York private equity group to take control the facility for 40 years. The firm is called Highstar Capital, and their link to Oakland is through the city’s port. In 2009 the Port of Oakland awarded Highstar a lucrative concession to take over the Outer Harbor Terminal for 50 years. Concessions are a form of privatization in which the underlying ownership of a public asset remains legally with a public authority, municipality, or the state, but control over the asset’s revenues, capital investments, and operations is effectively handed over to a private company.

A map of Ports America's terminal leases and concessions. The company, owned by Highstar Capital, is the largest operator of port infrastructure in the U.S.

A map of Ports America’s terminal leases and concessions. The company, owned by Highstar Capital, is the largest operator of port infrastructure in the U.S.

Highstar runs the Oakland port berths through Ports America, a terminal operator the firm purchased in 2007. The Oakland deal gives Highstar a monopoly over a major terminal at the Port in exchange for lease payments made to the Port of Oakland.

Highstar also controls a marine terminal in the Port of Baltimore under a virtually identical 50-year privatization deal. Ports America is the largest terminal operator in the United States, leasing more waterfront facilities than any other company under more traditional lease agreements that usually only extend three to seven years. In California alone, Ports America operates facilities at the ports of Concord, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Port Hueneme, Sacramento, San Deigo, and Stockton, in addition to its privatized Oakland property.

The Concord operation focuses on shipping military goods and ammunition overseas. Several of Ports America’s other operations handle similar military cargoes. The company’s major port operations pass through millions of containers every year with products bound for U.S. and overseas markets.

This is partly why Highstar, through Ports America, controls such a vast swath of the U.S. maritime acreage. Back in 2006 P&O Ports, an independent company, operated most of these marine terminals, but P&O was bought that year by Dubai Ports World, an aggressively expanding terminal operator based in the United Arab Emirates. Various members of the U.S. Congress objected to a company from a Arab nation taking over a good chunk of the U.S. port infrastructure. Behind the scenes Highstar, which was then still a subsidiary of the AIG insurance company, maneuvered to purchase P&O Ports from Dubai Ports World.

Highstar is among a growing number of infrastructure privatization funds focusing on U.S. public assets. These companies utilize their access to cheap debt, their considerable equity (much of it sourced from wealthy individuals and institutional investors like pensions), and their political connections, to take control of highways, bridges, ports, railroads, and other goods.

Highstar is also one of the biggest owners of oil and gas pipelines in North America. And in addition to its ownership stake in Puerto Rico’s Luis Muñoz Marin Airport, Highstar also owns the London City Airport in the U.K.

Wayne Berman, lobbyist, Highstar "adviser," current Blackstone government relations director.

Wayne Berman, lobbyist, Highstar “adviser,” current Blackstone government relations director.

Integral to Highstar’s business strategy is the cultivation of friends in high places, and influence in the halls of government. The company’s executives have never been shy about showering money on political campaigns, and buying the most connected lobbyists to push their interests. Highstar executives have spent over $900,000 to fund the campaigns of federal candidates and the Republican Party since 1990, with most of this spending concentrated in the mid to latter 2000s.

Highstar has spent $3.8 million over the past decade lobbying Congress. Most of this money was used to obtain the services of Wayne Berman, a Republican Party fundraiser who has been on the inside of numerous GOP presidential administrations.

Berman is a super-lobbyist who raises millions of dollars for conservative candidates. Individually Berman has contributed over $800,000 to federal elections campaigns since 1990. Berman is directly employed by Highstar as a “senior advisor.” Currently he is the in-house lobbyist for another private equity group Blackstone, but he remains in the employ of Highstar also.


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