Commentary

TIFIA Changes In Transportation Bill Are a Step In the Right Direction

Why changes to TIFIA restore the program to what it was originally intended to be

The National Journal’s Transportation Blog asks if there are any benefits from Congress’ recent modifications to the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program?

Various smart growth and transit groups are upset about the changes Congress made to the federal TIFIA program, in particular, changing the criteria for TIFIA loans from a laundry list of factors (including livability and sustainability) to primarily financial feasibility. But these changes restore TIFIA to what it was originally intended to be-not an all-purpose transportation loan program but a way to leverage limited federal dollars to support big-ticket infrastructure improvements.

The large increase in TIFIA’s budget (from $122 million per year to $750 million next year and $1 billion the following year) is a response to demand from state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) greatly exceeding the program’s capacity in recent years. And the streamlined criteria will make USDOT’s decisions about which projects to fund more straightforward and less subject to politicization based on inherently subjective factors introduced by the Obama administration that Congress has now deleted.

I had to laugh at the suggestion by Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s Steven Higashide that the reformed TIFIA program will likely fund “roads to nowhere.” Most state DOTs these days are so strapped for funding that they are hardly building any new roads. And the ones that they hope to build with TIFIA assistance are anything but boondoggles. That is thanks to the basic financial feasibility requirements that are unchanged in the expanded program. Specifically, a project can only qualify for a TIFIA loan if it has (1) a dedicated revenue stream, and (2) an investment-grade rating on its senior debt.

Most of the highway projects TIFIA is funding are either new toll roads or the addition of congestion-priced express toll lanes to existing expressways (such as those nearing completion on the Capital Beltway outside Washington, D.C.). The projected toll revenue stream is intended to pay back the investment-grade senior debt and the TIFIA loan, and (if there is any revenue beyond that) to provide a return to the equity investors in the project.

This kind of revenue-based financing is something of a revolution in highway funding, compared with the historic tax-and-grant system that is increasingly becoming unsustainable, as fuel tax revenues lag ever further behind the costs of building, maintaining, and modernizing highways. And TIFIA is now poised to spread this revolution, thanks to the increased budgetary authority Congress has provided.

My only real concern about Congress’s changes is that it increased the fraction of a project’s budget that can be funded by a TIFIA loan from the previous 33 percent to 49 percent. The purpose of TIFIA has been to provide “gap financing” for economically and financially sound projects that could not quite make their budget numbers work with conventional debt. Upping that fraction to nearly half may well reduce the pressure on state DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to commit their own resources to candidate projects, potentially reducing such projects’ financial soundness and thereby increasing the risk to federal taxpayers. Were I a part of the USDOT credit council reviewing TIFIA applications; I would give preference to projects requesting loans at or below 33 percent.

At a time when the handwriting is on the wall for conventional fuel tax-based highway grants, the shift to loans and financial soundness criteria is an important step in the right direction.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.

Aviation

Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.