U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said his office is trying to make sure that money authorized for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program is being quickly loaned out for projects, though experts said the process could be improved.
The remarks were made at a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works — the first time that Foxx has testified before a congressional committee since being sworn in as transportation secretary earlier this month.
The TIFIA program provides assistance for surface transportation projects in the form of loans, loan guarantees and standby lines of credit. It was created in 1998, and expanded and reformed under the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) transportation bill that was signed into law in July 2012.
MAP-21 increased TIFIA’s funding to $750 million for fiscal year 2013 and $1 billion for fiscal 2014. The Department of Transportation estimates that the program could stimulate $30 billion or more in infrastructure investment in fiscal 2014. Foxx said that in each of the last three years, DOT has received $12 billion to $15 billion in TIFIA requests.
But transportation industry experts said the process to obtain TIFIA loans could be streamlined and that loans could be obtained more quickly.
“There are some opportunities to improve the timeliness of the overall process,” said James Bass, chief financial officer for the Texas Department of Transportation.
Sen. David Vitter from Louisiana, the top Republican member on the committee, said he wants projects to move more quickly so there is not an appearance that the government is picking and choosing which requests move forward.
Foxx said one of his first orders of business is to have projects move through the pipeline. He said the department plans to hire around 16 additional people to help handle the loan requests.
“My instructions to my staff is to try to get to ‘yes’ on every application,” Foxx said.
Experts were also concerned by DOT’s reluctance to allow TIFIA loans to cover the maximum 49% percent of eligible project costs, as allowed by MAP-21. The department is hesitant to provide loans that go above the historical 33% of costs.
Foxx said that keeping a maximum of 33% of eligible costs allows DOT to keep providing assistance for projects in rural areas. He also said his office has been engaging in outreach efforts so that rural communities take advantage of the TIFIA program.
The experts agreed that TIFIA is a useful financing tool for transportation projects. Jim Roberts, who was testifying on behalf of The Associated General Contractors of America, said TIFIA is helpful in leveraging co-investments from the private sector for projects.
“The construction industry benefits from TIFIA financial assistance because it allows transportation projects to actually move forward,” he said.
But Foxx left without hearing from other witnesses.
Committee chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she will ask staff members on both sides of the aisle to draft a letter to Foxx outlining the problems with TIFIA that the experts described.
“We are committed to this program and we are committed to making sure it is the most effective program it can be,” she said.