After months of speculation, the White House has finally released its infrastructure plan. While its contents are not surprising, some of the ideas contained within the 53-page, detailed document are surprisingly innovative. Allow me to point out a few aspects of the plan that I think will benefit us in Central Texas the most.
The White House plan envisions at least a handful of new programs, including the Infrastructure Incentives Program and the Transformative Projects Program.
Through the Infrastructure Incentives Program, state and local agencies would receive federal funds in the form of grants, which can then be leveraged with private dollars to maximize investment in infrastructure. A total of $100 billion would be available through the program.
Naturally, these grants come with numerous criteria and oversight, but – important to our agency’s regional transportation projects – the application evaluation significantly favors projects with funding already in place. Of the requirements, roughly 70 percent of the evaluation criteria rests upon evidence that the applicant will secure and commit new, non-Federal revenue, both to create sustainable, long-term funding for infrastructure investments and for operations, maintenance and rehabilitation.
Another program that would benefit new transportation solutions in our area is the Transformative Projects Program. This program would make $20 billion available, and reward “ambitious, exploratory, and ground-breaking project ideas that have significantly more risk than standard infrastructure projects, but offer a much larger reward profile.”
Bold, innovative solutions to infrastructure and transportation challenges are what we at the Mobility Authority are all about — and I can foresee great potential in exploring some of our ideas through this exciting new program.
Another significant recommendation is providing states with tolling flexibility – a major sticking point for us here in Texas. Yet, even the plan notes that placing restrictions on tolling take away what is easily a major source of revenue for investment. Other provisions like reconciling the grandfathered restrictions on use of highway toll revenues with current law will also go a long way in locating dollars to invest in roads and highways.
Finally, the White House’s plan lays out a roadmap to streamline the permitting process while preserving environmental protections by recommending a “One Agency, One Decision” environmental review structure. The lead federal agency would have a firm, 21-month deadline for completing the review, and another three-month deadline following the review to make a permit decision. This will help cut down considerably on the amount of red tape and confusion of jockeying between multiple agencies for a single permit determination.
The new infrastructure plan would provide much-needed and long-overdue help in jumpstarting some of our highest-priority projects locally. States like Texas — and regions like Central Texas — have had to help ourselves by implementing user- or fee-based financing for too long. And though this model makes sense, it’s not a cure-all solution. Nor is raising the gas tax. We need to have all the available tools in our belt to realize all our transportation objectives.
We in Central Texas have waited long enough for the “road fairy” to appear. Tolling has filled a huge gap for those areas willing to put the real price of building roads before the public. In fact, the Mobility Authority has leveraged approximately 20 percent to 30 percent public equity funding to bring billions of dollars to fruition. Tolls are not only a proven stream of revenue for building new roads, they also help cover the cost of maintaining those roads over their 40-year lifespan.
Despite short-sighted accusations that this infrastructure plan would benefit “hedge funds” and provide corporate welfare for the rich, the reality is that providing a small percentage of equity to crucial, demand-driven projects would help the everyday worker who is trying to get to work, get home to enjoy family, and save time and money getting to places they need to go. At the end of the day, that is our goal.
Heiligenstein is executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.