Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and fellow Democrat Frank Lautenberg filed a bill Tuesday that would create a $5 billion fund to finance large-scale transportation projects by partnering with private sector and state/regional government investors.
The fund would essentially act as an infrastructure bank, an idea that has been previously proposed by President Obama and other lawmakers. But the term "infrastructure bank" does not appear in the American Infrastructure Investment Fund Act of 2013
The infrastructure fund would be authorized at $5 billion for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 and use a variety of tools, such as loans and loan guarantees, to support railroad, port, pipeline, airport, highway, bridge, transit and transportation-related projects to be selected using merit-based criteria.
The Department of Transportation would establish the fund, which would be run by an executive director and overseen by a board of directors that would vote on recommended projects with help of an expert advisory committee.
The fund could be expanded in the future to cover telecommunications, energy and water infrastructure.
The bill also authorized a National Infrastructure Investment Grant program within the DOT, at $600 million for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, for new construction or improvements to existing facilities.
The legislation comes during a congressional interlude between surface transportation reauthorization bills. A two-year, $105 billion law was enacted last summer that maintains current funding levels, but without addressing user-fee shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund. Many transportation advocates say an infrastructure bank, properly structured with planning experts, could help pool together money for projects that individual entities wouldn't be able to undertake on their own and use non-political criteria for determining which projects would have the most economic benefit.
"All options need to be on the table to rebuild and expand our rail systems, ports, highways, and airports,” Rockefeller said in a news release. “Right now, millions of dollars in private capital are parked on the sidelines. We need to leverage federal dollars through the infrastructure fund our bill creates to encourage private investment and fully meet our infrastructure needs. A strong transportation system promotes economic success and creates American jobs. I know several other senators are interested in this issue, and I have every intention of working with my colleagues as we move forward to develop a robust approach to maximizing the return on our public and private investments.”
The chances of the bill being acted upon this year are unclear, especially with a $5 billion price tag amidst the current budget crisis. More likely, it will be part of a larger surface transportation reauthorization bill that gets debated in 2014. - Eric Kulisch