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Villaraigosa's transportation funding plan gets key backing from U.S. chamber chief

February 16, 2011 | 11:47 am

The head of the influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce threw his support Wednesday behind Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's proposal to speed the building of local transportation projects.

"I talked to the mayor yesterday and told him, 'charge on,' " chamber president Thomas J. Donohue said at a Capitol Hill hearing. "We'll put you on a platform to tell people about it.''

The plan, commonly known as the 30/10 proposal, aims to build a dozen projects in 10 years instead of the originally scheduled 30 years. The Westside subway extension is included in the projects.

Though the mayor's plan has received local business support, the chamber holds considerable sway with Republican lawmakers from throughout the country who present a potential obstacle to his efforts to secure federal aid because of their drive to rein in federal spending.

Donohue spoke at a hearing called by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and an enthusiastic supporter of the mayor's plan.

Boxer was delighted to hear Donohue support the plan, even though the chamber worked hard but unsuccessfully for her defeat in November's election.

The plan also received the endorsement of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who noted that his appearance with his frequent adversary Donohue "does not mean that ... unicorns are now roaming the land.''

But Boxer said the business and labor endorsement of 30/10 underscores the growing support for creative ideas that would "stretch the dollars we have available for these important projects in these challenging economic times.''

The hearing comes a week before Boxer and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, hold a Los Angeles hearing on measures that should be included in a new transportation bill that they are drafting.

Villaraigosa, in seeking federal loans and subsidies, has said speeding the building of the transportation projects would provide jobs and reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions.

The mayor and his supporters also note that Los Angeles County is putting up a good chunk of its own money from a voter-approved half-cent sales tax increase to accelerate the projects.

Mica, who will play a key role in determining what federal help Los Angeles receives, has said he is open to considering the kind of innovative financing the mayor has proposed.

One possibility under consideration is increasing funding for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA, program. It is currently funded at about $110 million, though President Obama in the budget he sent to Congress this week proposed a four-fold funding increase.

The federal program is now being used to speed construction of the Crenshaw rail line from the Crenshaw district to a station near Los Angeles International Airport.

The chamber president called the program "one of the best deals around: Each dollar of federal funds can support up to $10 in TIFIA credit assistance and leverage $30 in transportation infrastructure investment.''

One other idea -- getting Washington to pay the interest on transportation bonds -- is still considered an uphill battle in Congress.


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-- Richard Simon in Washington