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.  

  • Glen

    How about a 36 cent tax on gas instead of the 18 now?? NO that whopping 18 cents is going kill people..Gees Americans need to get over this mindset.Including the White House

  • Chris

    Seriously. Higher fuel tax seems like a no-brainer. It would provide additional funding for new transit projects as well as create incentives for people to use more transit as well as drive more fuel efficient vehicles.

    Sometimes I wish we could just divide this country in half. All the people willing to pay taxes to pay for the infrastructure we need to grow can live on my side. The people who constantly complain about taxes and government intervention can live on the other side tax-free. Hell, abolish government completely on their side…that’s what they want, right?

  • How about arresting freeway spending? You’re reading this, right Mr. Mayor?

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