LaHood Talks Budget: “Very Bright” Future for Infrastructure Fund

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said today that he sees "very bright" prospects for congressional approval of the Obama administration's $4 billion National Infrastructure Innovation and Finance Fund, the new iteration of the long-discussed National Infrastructure Bank proposal.

lahood_large.jpgTransportation Secretary LaHood, at left, with the president. (Photo: NYT)

"There is a great deal of interest in this concept in the Senate," LaHood told reporters during a wide-ranging discussion of the White House's transport budget for the fiscal year that begins in October.

Asked about resolving any differences between the administration's Fund plan and a more bank-like entity envisioned by senior lawmakers, LaHood emphasized his openness to cooperation: "The idea is that we'd work with Congress on their ideas."

LaHood also noted that the U.S. DOT's $78.8 billion budget request for 2011, which marks a 2 percent increase from last year's levels, includes $50 million in grants for an issue that he has turned into a personal signature for him -- cracking down on distracted driving.

One topic of particular interest was the White House's continued assumption of transfers from the general Treasury to the highway trust fund (HTF) pending enactment of a new long-term federal transportation bill. As the federal gas tax, last raised in 1993, remains static and lawmakers decline to discuss an alternative funding source, the presidential budget document projects that the HTF would need more than $11 billion to make it through the current fiscal year.

LaHood told reporters that while "we've gone along with the short-term extensions" of the 2005 federal transport law, the most recent of which expires at the end of this month, the White House has always sought to postpone the next bill until 2011.

"The biggest dilemma for all of us is finding $400 [billion] to $500 billion, given that the highway trust fund is insufficient to fund all the things we want to do," the former House Republican added.

The uncertain status of future HTF infusions prompted one reporter to ask whether transportation spending would be subject to the president's proposed three-year freeze on discretionary accounts. (Indeed, today's budget includes a chart projecting that long-term transit funding would remain flat.) Chris Bertram, the U.S. DOT's chief financial officer, said the budget's funding levels should be considered "placeholder, rather than frozen."