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Bipartisan group of U.S. senators backs hefty boost in money to speed rail projects

May 25, 2011 |  6:17 pm

Los Angeles’ efforts to speed up the expansion of its public transit system received a boost in Washington on Wednesday, as a bipartisan group of senators backed a hefty increase in a federal loan program seen as a potential source of funding for projects.

Democratic and Republican leaders on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee endorsed spending $1 billion a year, up from the current $110 million, for the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. L.A. officials have eyed the program as a possible funding source for their efforts to build about a dozen rail projects in one decade instead of three, including the Westside subway extension.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the announcement exciting but added, "The game’s not over yet."
The increase was included in an agreement reached between Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee; Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the committee’s top Republican; and other senators on nearly $55 billion a year overall for the next big transportation bill.

The senators also agreed to steer a portion of the funds from the federal loan program, something that should boost its chances of gaining political support.
The proposed funding increase for the program came as Boxer -– along with the heads of the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, usual adversaries -- backed Villarigosa’s effort to accelerate the transportation projects, saying it would provide jobs and benefit the economy.
But substantial obstacles remain.
The House, where the Republican majority’s top priority has been to rein in spending, has yet to weigh in on how much aid Washington should provide to Los Angeles and other regions seeking to accelerate transportation projects.

But Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has said that he is open to considering the kind of innovative financing that Villaraigosa has proposed.

Villaraigosa said the naming of a section of the legislation boosting the federal loan program America Fast Forward “acknowledged the leadership role we played.” The initiative was originally called 30/10, but the mayor came up with the new name to draw broader support for the idea.

Local business leaders also applauded the Senate endorsement.

“This action brings Los Angeles closer to implementing the mayor's '30/10; initiative that will generate jobs and increase mobility in one of the nation’s most densely populated regions," said Russell Goldsmith, chairman of the Los Angeles Coalition for the Economy & Jobs. "Our bipartisan coalition of business, nonprofit and labor leaders urges Congress to give its full support to this legislation.”

-- Richard Simon in Washington and Ari Bloomekatz in Los Angeles