Senators greet new DOT chief with funding questions

by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper

Lawmakers in the Senate greeted new Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx with multiple questions about federal spending on road and transit projects in their states during his first appearance before a congressional committee on Wednesday.

Foxx was testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee for the first time since being sworn-in to office earlier this month.

The purpose of the hearing was to discuss the implementation of improvements to the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program that were included in the road and transit funding bill that was passed by Congress last year. The TIFIA program is a loan grant program that is designed to allow state and local governments to use money from the federal government to attract private investment in road and transit construction.

Lawmakers used their audience with Foxx to state their case for funding for transportation projects in their districts of all types, however.

“It’s my understanding that 84 percent of the TIFIA funded programs go for new highways,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said.

“If you represent a state like I do in Maryland, and you look at our number one transportation challenge, the Washington Metro has been rated the worse congestion in the nation, so we need transit projects,” Cardin continued. “Yet transit projects are having a difficult time getting TIFIA Funding. We need funding for the Purple Line on the Washington Metro system and the Red Line on the Baltimore Metro system.”

Other members of the panel complained about red tape in the TIFIA program, or the lack of congressional action on providing other sources of transportation funding.

“There’s no point in providing 15 times the funding provided in [the previous surface transportation bill] for TIFIA if it prevents resources from being used in the ways they were intended,” Sen. Jim Imhofe (R-Okla.).  “It’s essential that we address institutional obstacles prevent optimal use of TIFIA.”

The 2012 transportation bill, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), included $1.7 billion for the TIFIA program over the two years. The legislation also streamlined the application process for the loan program to make it easier for cities and states to apply for the funding.

Even as they pressed Foxx for answers about the TIFIA loan program, lawmakers also questioned Foxx about potential funding sources for the next surface transportation bill.

“While TIFIA is an essential tool to invest in our infrastructure, it certainly does not replace a sound, sustainable highway trust fund,” Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) offered.

The transportation bill that included the TIFIA reforms included about $54 billion per year in funding for road and transit projects in the U.S. The traditional funding source for those programs, the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax, only brings in approximately $35 billion each year.

Foxx told lawmakers on the panel that he would work with them on identifying potential ways to close that funding shortfall when they have to craft a new surface transportation bill next year.

The new DOT chief also used his time before lawmakers to defend the agency’s handling of the TIFIA loan program.

“To date, the program has extended more than $11 billion in credit assistance to support almost $44 billion in highway, bridge, rail, and bus projects,” Foxx told the panel. “This year we expect to obligate TIFIA funds for seven or more projects a record number and fiscal year 2014 promises to be even busier.”

Foxx told the Senate committee that the DOT was hiring additional people to help process the loan applications now that he was behind the wheel of the agency.

“We are focusing very much on helping these projects move through the pipelines,” he said. “That was one of the first orders of business after coming to the department.

“We are expanding our staffing,” Foxx continued. “You can expect that we’re going to add something on the order of 16 additional people to help us move projects through the pipeline. Every project that comes through our doors, our staff is trying to work to get to yes.”


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