A National Infrastructure Bank By Any Other Name …

The House transportation committee’s new $450 billion bill provides for
a national infrastructure bank intended to "maximize the limited
resources available for our surface transportation needs," as the
panel’s early outline puts it.

This sounds a lot like the infrastructure bank proposed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and 35 other House members — indeed, Streetsblog Capitol Hill noted the similarity yesterday — but in fact, Oberstar’s proposal is likely to look different from his colleagues’.

Details
on Oberstar’s infrastructure bank plan are expected to be filled in
after his legislation is officially introduced early next week, a
Democratic committee source said yesterday. Yet the transportation
panel’s outline notes one crucial difference: Oberstar’s infrastructure
bank would be "located within" his proposed new DOT office of
intermodalism, while the bank backed by DeLauro and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) would be independent of the government.

Why is this significant? An independent bank, backed nonetheless by
the full faith and credit of the U.S. Treasury, would be free to make
funding decisions without being swayed by political ties or the ability
to gain from managing any particular transportation project.

Take
South Carolina, for example. It’s home to an infrastructure bank that
accounted for 55 percent of the nation’s state-level transportation
loan guarantees in 2006, according to the National Governors
Association (NGA).South Carolina’s bank has its own board, separate
from the state DOT, and cannot own or manage any aspect of a project
that is seeking its funding help.

A similar restriction is
included in DeLauro’s national bill. But Oberstar’s infrastructure
bank, as an arm of the federal DOT, easily could be tied to the
agency’s internal culture and priorities.

Many state
infrastructure banks also evaluate projects using specific criteria.
Arizona ranks its proposed projects based on "financial considerations,
economic benefits and safety" while allowing applicants to choose
between "mobility" and "air quality and environmental impacts" for
theit final standard, the NGA found in its study of the issue last year.

DeLauro’s
bill asks the national bank to evaluate proposed transportation
projects based on six factors: job creation, emissions reduction,
congestion reduction, "poverty and inequality reduction," the
furtherance of urban smart growth, public health benefits, and the use
of "smart tolling" methods such as congestion pricing.

For
Oberstar, then, the devil may be in the details. Will his bill’s
infrastructure bank use criteria similar to the DeLauro plan or to
those used at existing state-level banks? Will his bill require that
project sponsors repay the government using direct revenue from the
projects that get funds (i.e. tolls)?

The answers to those
questions could determine how much support the transportation bill
receives from fans of the infrastructure-bank concept.

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