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

12:20 PM PST on March 11, 2010

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. 

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