Barbara Boxer Questions Need for Infrastructure Bank

EPW Committee Chair Barbara Boxer says "not so fast" on that infrastructure bank.

EPW Committee Chair Barbara Boxer says "not so fast" on a national infrastructure bank.

California Democrat Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, expressed skepticism about one of the centerpieces of President Obama’s infrastructure plan today. As she tries to stave off an election challenge from the right, Boxer seems reluctant to embrace the creation of a national infrastructure bank to finance transportation projects.

In a committee hearing today, Boxer instead threw her weight behind an existing program created by the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA):

The infrastructure bank has some support in Congress, others oppose it. So the reason I focus on TIFIA is because it’s already there. So, I think the Administration, I hope, will recognize that if something is already in law it may be easier to go with that model. I’m not saying give up on the infrastructure bank…. But TIFIA is there.

Boxer also appeared to take solace in a statement from Senator James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Environment committee and well-known climate change skeptic. (He was at another hearing and couldn’t attend.) In his statement, Inhofe said TIFIA was one of the forms of “innovative financing I’m most excited about,” adding that “this is a successful program that must be dramatically expanded.”

Unlike TIFIA, the infrastructure bank has generated enthusiasm from transportation reformers, who see it as a potential vehicle to spur investment in walkable development.

The star of the hearing was Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. After his county voted to pay an extra half-cent sales tax to accelerate transit construction, Villaraigosa has become an outspoken advocate of federal financial assistance for local transportation projects, pushing specifically for his plan to accelerate transit investment in L.A. He acknowledged that whenever a jurisdiction asks for federal money for a project, officials will need to answer the question, “If it’s such a good idea, how much of your money are you putting up?”

Villaraigosa aligned with Boxer on the TIFIA vs. infrastructure bank question. When he identified his two-point financing wish-list, it included an expansion and modification of TIFIA and a new category of subsidized infrastructure bonds. He told Boxer, “As you said, while the infrastructure bank may be a good idea, these programs currently exist; they can be expanded in a way to move projects now.”

Boxer also found a willing partner in Roy Kienitz, the Under Secretary for Policy at DOT. She asked him if DOT would work with the committee to “reform TIFIA in such a way that it rewards those counties, cities, states that are willing” to help bear the funding burden themselves. His answer: “In a word, yes, we’re absolutely willing to do that.”

More on Kienitz’s statements in the next post.