Rendell: National Infrastructure Bank Could Move as Part of New Jobs Bill

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), who is in Washington today continuing his push for a "front-loaded" federal transportation bill, told Streetsblog Capitol Hill that he sees momentum building for a National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) to be created as part of the jobs bill now moving forward in Congress.

20080113rad_rendell_330.jpgGov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) (Photo: Post-Gazette)

Rendell, who co-chairs the infrastructure advocacy group Building America's Future with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), has proposed seeding a new NIB using part of a short-term loan from the federal Treasury to the nation's highway trust fund -- the meat of the "front-loading" concept.

"The original stimulus bill had decent infrastructure spending," Rendell said in an interview. "It probably should have had more."

The Pennsylvanian, who is bidding for his state to become only the third in America to add tolls to an existing interstate highway, described a "front-loaded" transport spending bill as a means to create jobs quickly while giving Congress time to reach an agreement on long-term infrastructure reform after the 2010 midterms.

Approving a loan from the federal government's general fund to the highway trust fund would ensure that "the tough political decisions involved in" debating a new six-year transportation bill don't slow the pace of job creation, Rendell said.

His pitch would involve postponing the "guts of reform" -- for example, progress on national performance targets for transport and more flexibility for states to spend highway money on transit -- for 12 months, at which point lawmakers would be called upon to resolve the nation's transportation funding gap in order to pass a new bill that repays the Treasury's loan.

The design of a new NIB, which the Obama administration strongly supports, is a key issue for Rendell. The bill introduced in June by House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) would make an NIB part of the U.S. DOT and set up an Office of Public Benefit within the Federal Highway Administration to monitor the terms of any public-private partnerships.

Rendell expressed concerns that such a setup would limit the NIB's independence and subject it to excessive political scrutiny. His preferred method would be setting up an independent board to manage the NIB, as envisioned in legislation offered by Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D).

Rendell said he has talked up his plan in recent days with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and President Obama, who stopped in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Friday for a speech on the struggling economy. The governor described Obama's eyes widening as he heard statistics on the manufacturing growth sparked by transportation stimulus spending in Pennsylvania: 4,300 more tons of steel bought in the first 10 months of this year than in all of 2008, a 43 percent increase; a similar increase in concrete production, with 95 percent of it coming from Pennsylvania factories.

Rendell told Streetsblog Capitol Hill that he would support efforts to increase the transportation accountability language in the new jobs bill, including sending some aid directly to urban metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and setting stronger "use it or lose it" guidelines to cut through possible delays at state DOTs.

But the governor's ideal jobs bill would involve using "ready-to-go" project lists generated by state DOTs, which environmental advocates tend to consider to be little more than "vague 'wish lists'," as John Krieger of the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) put it today.

"Is any of this perfect? No," Rendell acknowledged, vowing to keep "banging the drum" for long-term infrastructure investments after the current jobs bill is finished. "If I were the king of the world," he said earlier in the interview, "we would go on a 10-year infrastructure repair push, we'd build out the passenger rail system."

For now, however, Rendell is focused on amassing support for a "front-loaded" transportation bill that emphasizes economic recovery. "My message to fellow reformers is, we are with you," he said. "But understand that there are priorities, and right now No. 1 is to get Americans back to work."