Financial District: Hurry up and wait

Reauthorization Could Slide into 2011

By Audrey Dutton, Washington Bureau, The Bond Buyer newspaper


-faucetFor cash-strapped state and local governments that have critical transportation infrastructure needs, but no money to pay for them, the coming year will be bittersweet.

Federal aid from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and possibly another job-creation bill will provide some transportation funding relief to municipal bond issuers, and some high-profile grants are expected to be announced this winter. But it probably will be another year before Congress takes up new multi-year authorization bills for the sector, sources said in recent interviews.

Governments and other muni bond issuers earlier this year began chasing ARRA funds after the new law was enacted in February, flooding the U.S. Department of Transportation and its various sub-agencies with applications for surface transportation and high-speed rail projects. The application pool was so large that states and cities face miniscule odds and are ­competing with their neighbors.

But market and industry participants are now speculating that the ARRA initiatives may be models for, or springboards into, longer-term ­programs.

Meanwhile, ­surface and air transportation groups have pushed for Congress to dedicate a large portion of funding in any new job-creation bill to transportation infrastructure.

But more permanent programs and revenue overhauls that would be instituted by much anticipated multi-year transportation bills have been hampered by a ­prolonged congressional battle over health care and climate-change legislation, the coming midterm elections, and reluctance by some lawmakers and the White House to broach the subject of user fees while unemployment remains high.

After the Senate returns from its winter recess this month, it is expected to take up a new job-creation bill.

The bill had not been proposed in the Senate as of late December, but the House-approved Jobs for Main Street Act of 2010 would provide federal transportation grants and attempt to solve some cash-flow problems that have plagued the highway trust fund.

The House bill would provide $27.5 billion for highways, $8.4 billion for transit, and $500 million for airports.

Rumblings in the Senate have suggested lawmakers there might support transportation funding in the area of $23 billion to $30 billion split between highways and transit,an industry source said late last month. The House bill also would lift a ban on the trust fund’s ability to earn interest on its cash balances — providing it with $500 million to $1 billion more per year, according to House estimates — and would restore $19.5 billion of foregone interest payments.

The jobs bill also could prolong the wait for a new multi-year transportation law. The bill passed by the House, for example, would extend the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users SAFETEA-LU) through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2010, or one year after the law expired. The programs under SAFETEA-LU were extended through the end of February by a military appropriations bill to give Congress time to approve the longer extension.

Recovery Programs

In the meantime, new programs created by ARRA may be laying groundwork for lengthier federal investments in state-administered transportation projects. State transportation officials want the Build America Bonds program created by ARRA to be extended beyond its current expiration date of Dec. 31, said Joung Lee, senior analyst for finance and business development at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who introduced BAB legislation in February 2005 and is considered a key supporter of the bonds, plans to work toward an extension.

“I think that we have seen that Build America Bonds have been an incredible success, providing prompt infrastructure investment in an efficient way. For that reason, I want to continue working to extend the program before it expires at the end of next year,” he said. “But I also think that Congress needs to refine the program, so that there isn’t just one type of Build America Bond that can be used for any type of project.

“I would like to see different flavors of BABs created. That would allow us to adjust the subsidy and give, for example, transportation infrastructure investment a larger subsidy than other types of projects because transportation projects typically create more jobs and other public benefits.”

I would like to see different flavors of BABs* created.”

— Sen. Ron Wyden, D – Oregon

Currently, state and local governments can issue an unlimited amount of BABs to finance capital expenditures with the option of receiving direct federal payments equaling 35% of their interest expense. By mid-December, only eight months after ARRA’s enactment, issuers had sold more than $64 billion of direct-pay BABs, according to Thomson Reuters.

Airports want Congress to extend the temporary alternative-minimum tax exemption for private-activity bonds, saying the AMT exemption saved airport bond issuers millions of dollars and kept some projects from being halted. Issuers had sold $5.4 billion of AMT-exempt airport PABs as of Dec. 11, according to Jane Calderwood, vice president for government and political affairs at Airports Council International-North America. The debt supported projects at 35 different airports, she said. McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas was in the midst of a $2.5 billion project and “would have had to close the door” on it, but the AMT exemption enabled them to sell $550 million of debt to keep it alive, Calderwood said.

Another ARRA program will result in one of the most-anticipated announcements of the winter: the Federal Railroad Administration’s choice of a state or states to receive $8 billion in high-speed rail funding that was authorized under the law. The FRA received 259 applications for projects totaling $57 billion. Already, lawmakers are appropriating funds to build the high-speed rail network, which the U.S. High Speed Rail Association recently said will cost $600 billion to complete. Tacking onto the initial ARRA investment and following the designation of 11 high-speed rail corridors, Congress last month approved $2.5 billion for high-speed rail projects in its fiscal 2010 transportation appropriations bill.

The FRA’s administrator Joseph C. Szabo said recently the Obama administration is evaluating high-speed rail proposals in keeping with its “desire to lay the groundwork for a truly national high-speed and intercity passenger rail program.”

No Consensus

But the lingering, crucial problem for transportation officials — how to generate revenue for federal and state transportation trust funds — is not likely to be solved soon, according to sources.

Only one multi-year surface transportation authorization has been introduced so far, by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn. It does not yet include a tax title establishing a revenue source for the program. The bill would establish a bond-related metropolitan mobility program for metro areas with more than 500,000 residents, including the establishment of metropolitan infrastructure banks.

Oberstar said that $1 billion of federal funds would be provided for the metro mobility program.His bill also would merge more than 100 federal transportation funding categories into four major programs, and create a federal P3 office to oversee and approve state and local governments’ tolling of highways financed with federal aid.

Transportation advocates have all but placed bets on the nation moving toward a mileage tax to replace the current revenue source, gasoline and diesel fuel taxes and vehicle-related fees. But White House officials have stated emphatically that they will not consider a new transportation tax in a struggling economy.

The delay in finding a new revenue source could spark more participation from the private sector and more public-private partnerships. If Congress does not raise fuel taxes significantly, states and localities will look more and more to the private sector for capital to support their needs, said Jack G. Finn, senior vice president and national director of toll services of HNTB Corp. But commenting on prospects for a gas tax increase, Finn said, “I think that’s doubtful.”

One potential mechanism to pay for infrastructure is a national infrastructure bank, which has been proposed by congressional lawmakers and the White House, among others. However, the current multi-year transportation proposal does not yet include such a bank, and Congress voted not to appropriate any money for it this fiscal year, opting instead for the bank to be created under the authorization process. Additionally, transportation experts have warned that a bank would not be a cure-all for funding woes.

“An infrastructure bank is not a substitute for money,” said Joshua Schank, director of research for the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project, which is pushing for a performance-based federal policy and wants tolling — particularly congestion pricing — to play a larger role in transportation finance.v

Editor’s Note: Bond Buyer is a SourceMedia publication. SourceMedia is owned by Investcorp, which also owns Randall-Reilly, the parent company of Better Roads.

Good Expectations

— by Daryl Delano, Contributing Editor

As 2009 drew to a close things were finally looking up for the U.S. economy. The final economic indicator report released last year was from The Conference Board, and it showed the Consumer Confidence Index (CCI) rising for the second month in a row during December.

The overall CCI reached its highest level in three months – but thanks entirely to a sharp upturn in the “Expectations” component. And therein lies the source of some concern as we enter the New Year.

The “Present Situation” component of the CCI actually declined by more than 10 percent between November and December, and remained at its lowest level since February of 1983. Thus, although consumers were concerned at the end of 2009 about persistently high levels of unemployment and low/no growth in household income, they expected economic conditions to improve between then and the middle of 2010 (the “Expectations” component of the CCI measures consumer’s assessment of economic conditions 6 months in the future).

Consequently, economic developments in the real (vs. “expected”) economy during the first few months of this year will be critical in establishing momentum for economic growth – or for fueling concerns about a “double-dip” recession. At year’s end, of course, we didn’t yet have a reading on how economic growth (as measured by the change in Gross Domestic product [GDP]) had fared during the final quarter of 2009. Most indicators were positive, however, including consumer confidence, manufacturers’ new orders, and initial reports of retail sales during the Christmas-Hanukah-New Year’s Holiday period. We did, though, have final numbers for the third quarter of the year. Third-quarter 2009 GDP grew at an annual rate of 2.2 percent – the first positive move for GDP since the second quarter of 2008. Nevertheless, last year’s third-quarter gain in GDP was much lower than the 3.5 percent increase initially estimated by the U.S. Commerce Department — a worrisome development were this to become a pattern of economic reality falling short of expectations.

Expectations for the final quarter of last year were high – GDP growth should have been as good (or better) than that recorded during the third quarter of the year.

More important, however, will be the U.S. economy’s growth during the first three months of 2010. How strong – and how sustainable – will economic growth prove to be as we move through the New Year? Construction-wise there are plenty of positives – the bounce-back from depressed levels for the new residential and residential remodeling sectors of the market, and the ARRA-stimulus-funding-fueled momentum for highways, bridges, and most other sectors of infrastructure construction. But there are significant negatives, as well – cash-strapped state and local government funding authorities, on top of demand-challenged and funding-starved private developers of retail, office, hotel and warehouse space.

The Great Recession of 2007-2009 has fundamentally changed the economic landscape and has at least temporarily altered the behavior of U.S. consumers and businesses. The impact of these behavioral changes on spending and investment decisions – and thus on overall economic growth – will become clearer as we move through 2010. At present, most economists are cautiously optimistic that the “tailwinds” of monetary and fiscal policy stimulus, improved financial conditions and pent-up demand will be enough to offset the continued “headwinds” of unemployment, foreclosures and limited credit availability. If so, the nascent economic recovery – while slow to develop strength and momentum – should prove to be sustainable, and should become self-reinforcing as we move into 2011.v

TRB Watch

by Russell Houston, Senior Communications Officer, Transportation Research Board

Quality Management of Pavement Condition Data Collection

Although the concepts of quality management, control, and acceptance have been extensively used in manufacturing industrial processes, these same principles have not been systematically applied to pavement data collection. This is partially because in these services the “product” is not clearly known and the reference value often is difficult to determine. To help address this issue, TRB’s National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Synthesis 401: Quality Management of Pavement Condition Data Collection explores the quality management practices being employed by public road and highway agencies for automated, semi-automated, and manual pavement condition data collection and delivery using in-house staff and contracted services. The review focuses on the collection of distress data at the network level, as well as on smoothness, friction, and structural capacity data collection processes. A downloadable PDF of the report is available at both the Transportation Research Board Website and at

Pavement Management 2009 (No. 2093) (No. 2094) (No. 2095)

TRB’s Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board (TRR), Nos. 2093, 2094, and 2095 include 45 papers that explore a wide variety of issues related to pavement management systems; pavement monitoring, evaluation, and data storage; full-scale and accelerated pavement testing; and strength and deformation characteristics of pavement sections. These issues also examine pavement friction, skid resistance, and pavement – vehicle interaction; rigid pavement design; flexible pavement design; and pavement rehabilitation. Individual TRRs, which are published on an irregular basis throughout the year, consist of collections of peer-reviewed papers on specific transportation subject areas and modes. TRB’s TRR Online service ( allows all visitors to identify papers of interest and review abstracts of those papers. Access to the full papers is available to service subscribers and employees of TRB sponsors.  Papers also may be purchased on an individual basis.

Russell Houston edits a weekly e-newsletter for the Transportation Research Board, a division of the National Academies, available at This column is not an endorsement of any of the contents of Better Roads. Contact: