U.S. DOT Cagey on Funding New Transport Bill as Senators Seek Solutions

Senators began searching today for new strategies to connect local planners with an ever-dwindling pot of federal infrastructure dollars, even as a senior U.S. DOT aide declined to say whether the White House's upcoming principles for the next long-term transportation bill would include funding specifics.

villaraigosa_oath_inaug.jpgAntonio Villaraigosa is seeking a bridge loan from Washington to speed up L.A.'s 30/10 initiative. (Photo: LAist)

The star witness at the Senate environment committee's hearing was Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who sought congressional support for federal loans to expedite his city's ambitious 30/10 transit expansion project.

Environment panel chief Barbara Boxer (D-CA) threw her weight behind the 30/10 plan as the mayor pitched his approach -- reliant on voters' approval of higher sales taxes to pay for new infrastructure -- as a model for the rest of the nation.

"This is the third time the Los Angeles electorate has voted to tax itself for a better tomorrow," Villaraigosa said. "As a result, Los Angeles has been been able to make massive investments in public transit and our highway system."

But Villaraigosa's secondary message exposed the ongoing lack of Hill consensus on the way to pay for new investments that both Democrats and Republicans support. "Making sure that large metro areas get the majority of [federal transport] money makes a lot of sense," the mayor said, lamenting language in last year's stimulus law that routed most transportation aid through state capitals.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) echoed Villaraigosa, remarking that he could not "see a governmental apparatus" in place to effectively divert transportation funding to pressing local needs.

Whitehouse asked the Angeleno, who currently serves as vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, to work with his colleagues on "a truly transparent local mechanism to say, 'these are the projects we really need,' to get around the concern that this is earmarking, special dealing, but also get around the bureaucracy."

Before the mayor's testimony, U.S. DOT undersecretary Roy Kienitz admitted to senators that he is "not sure" if the Obama administration's planned list of principles for a new long-term transportation bill will include ideas for filling the  nation's massive funding gap. Congress envisions new legislation with a price tag of at least $450 billion over six years, but the federal gas tax is estimated to fall short of that mark by upwards of $200 billion.

Sen. George Voinovich urged Kienitz and fellow White House aides to reconsider their opposition to raising the gas tax during an economic downturn, warning that no amount of innovative new financing mechanisms would be enough to fund a new bill.

Chief among those new financing ideas is the National Infrastructure Innovation and Finance Fund (dubbed the "I-Fund"), which the Obama team believes can use federal funding to attract private investment in new transport projects.

Other options for extending credit to local planners include the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), which guarantees loans for new projects.

Another witness at today's hearing, Max Inman, a 33-year veteran financing specialist at the Federal Highway Administration, lauded the institutional support provided for local planners who use traditional U.S. DOT-directed programs such as TIFIA. He questioned whether the White House's proposed I-Fund would be able to provide that level of guidance for local sponsors, given that its structure has yet to be fully envisioned.

But Inman also advocated several changes long sought by infrastructure reformers, calling for relaxed limits on tolling interstate highways and a consolidation of the 100-plus categories that currently exist for federal transport spending.