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New federal agency would 'leverage' private dollars for infrastructure

Gage Skidmore | Flickr

A group of about a dozen U.S. senators, including Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., are proposing to create a new agency to help local and state governments leverage private dollars for critical infrastructure projects. The bill is called the BRIDGE Act, which stands for Building and Renewing Infrastructure for Development and Growth in Employment.

“It’s another way that local governments can take advantage of yet another tool to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do,” Blunt said. Funds could be used for projects ranging from transportation, ports, water and sewer projects to energy transmission equipment.

While crumbling roads and bridges are the most visible infrastructure problems, Blunt said, “We have another infrastructure challenge that we don’t see that is below ground'' and lacks the financing tools to address.  

One example of an aging and all but invisible element of infrastructure in need of attention is St. Louis’ waste-water system. In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Blunt said that part of the system was built when Abraham Lincoln was president. 

“It’s amazing how long wood will last when you keep it perpetually under water, but it’s not going to last forever,” he said.

The bill comes as Republican congressional leaders have so far refused to consider long-term support for the Federal Highway Trust Fund.  Congress has approved 33 short-term extensions to the Highway Trust Fund since 2008.

Blunt said lawmakers need to find some way beyond increasing motor fuel taxes to boost long-term funding for the highway bill. This new proposal, he said, is primarily designed for local governments to pay for projects without another source of potential funding.

Kirk said he sees the need for a new funding mechanism that does not rely on additional taxes. 

“In a constrained budget environment, our nation’s transportation backlog continues to grow. The BRIDGE Act encourages public-private partnerships to repair and fund our aging infrastructure.” 

The bill is necessary to address the country's "infrastructure crisis,” said McCaskill.

“At a time when congressional leaders have failed to produce or let us vote on a long-term highway bill, this is an innovative approach that can help in Missouri and in states across the country to start tackling our highest priority infrastructure needs.”

The new agency would get a $10 billion start from Congress, but it would become self-sufficient over time by providing low-interest loans and charging what sponsors say will be modest fees. If successful, it would provide an ongoing source funding that does not rely on additional federal appropriations.

To qualify, projects in more populated areas would have to cost at least $50 million dollars; projects in rural areas would qualify for funding at $10 million in costs.  Blunt said the new agency could provide up to 49 percent of a project’s funding to ensure encourage private sector investment.

The new agency would have a seven-member board of directors and a CEO – all required to demonstrate expertise in financial management and all would be subject to confirmation by the Senate.