Expanded, Simplified TIFIA Still Greasing the Gears of Highway Expansion

The widening of SR 91 in Southern California is an example of the "innovative" TIFIA program providing more of the same. Image: ##http://www.dot.ca.gov/dist12/sr91_widening.htm##Caltrans##

A federal loan awarded to a California highway illustrates how TIFIA, the “innovative” transportation financing program that was expanded as part of MAP-21, is still funding business-as-usual highway projects.

U.S. DOT announced last week that it would back California’s SR 91 highway expansion in suburban Los Angeles with $421 million in low-interest loans. The project is a $1.3 billion traditional freeway widening with no special environmental or social merits. It will extend two express lanes and add two additional lanes on an eight-mile stretch between the Inland Empire and Orange County, and relieve the “local commuter nightmare,” according to Congressman Ken Calvert (R-CA). The project was also the recipient of $20 million in TIGER grants.

Since the program launched in 1998, TIFIA has funded 32 projects to the tune of $10.5 billion. When it was dramatically expanded as part of MAP-21, guidelines for the federal loan program were changed so that essentially the only criterion for project acceptance is creditworthiness. Since then, observers have been wondering whether the “innovative” program would simply greenlight a backlog of highway projects. (Even when the program had more criteria attached to its loans, the Government Accountability Office found that it tilted toward “large highway projects.”)

While most TIFIA projects are about moving cars, not all of them are. Since MAP-21 was enacted, TIFIA has funded $219 million in transit and pedestrian projects — including the Orange Line Expansion in Dallas and the Chicago Riverwalk — and just more than $1 billion in highway projects, including SR 91. That’s about five dollars in highway spending for every dollar spent on sustainable transportation. This is basically the same split that existed before MAP-21. The GAO found that in 2010 and 2011, 16.6 percent of TIFIA funds were spent on transit.

Awarding this TIFIA loan was one of the first moves by new U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. In a press release last week, Foxx oddly called the road an example of “fix-it-first” policy, although it is quite clearly a road-widening project. “This project is a job creator that will improve mobility in the region and better connect Orange and Riverside counties,” Foxx said.

Will TIFIA continue to fund more of these “innovative” projects to build new highway lanes? It seems likely.

  • Anonymous

    It used to be that highway advocacy groups cried foul when efforts to fund transit from the MFT were advanced. Maybe they should stick to MFT, even as it has become insolvent.

    We should not allocate non-MFT dollars to highway expansion. They should not have their cake and eat it too. Perhaps they could get 15% of non-MFT funding eligible for major capital capital transportation investments, and transit, bikes, and pedestrian imp0rovements should get 85%. It’s time to place the shoe on the other foot.

    Yes, it is time that we begin making the first great investments of the 21st century rather than the last ill-advised ones of the 20th. We need affordable, reliable, and efficient alternatives to driving, not incrementally more pavement to drive on.

  • TIFIA doesn’t sound like a very good deal if transit is only getting 16.6 percent of funds. That’s less than the amount of the Highway Trust Fund reserved for transit spending.

  • Anonymous

    FYI, that image is of a *different* widening project on the 91. The project that got a TIFIA loan is this one: http://www.sr91project.info/media/upload/rj3d7kszjn.pdf

    Trying to come up with somewhere in the US comparable to Santa Ana Canyon and drawing a blank. Over 3 million people in Orange County, over 2 million in Riverside County, and the only connection (except two-lane Carbon Canyon Rd and Ortega Hwy) is the 91 freeway and triple-tracked (!) BNSF rail line through the canyon.

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