Corona, CA: Federal loan sought to fund Highway 91 project

The final piece of funding for a $1.3 billion project to add lanes to Highway 91 in Corona will come from a highly competitive federal loan program, Riverside County transportation officials hope.

Transportation planners, elected officials and local business leaders are banding together to encourage U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to support their plans for $400 million from a loan program created by the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. The federal loan program is meant to give agencies a low-interest way to pay for major construction projects.

Up to 33 percent of a project's funding can be borrowed, though the terms of the loan program can vary. Less federal money could be committed, but used to leverage private loans. In the case of the 91 project, $443 million would be the maximum local officials could borrow, said John Standiford, deputy director of the Riverside County Transportation Commission.

If approved, the federal loan gives the commission the final funding needed to extend two toll lanes from the Orange County line to Interstate 15, and a general use lane from the county line to Pierce Street in Riverside. Construction is scheduled to begin next year.

Securing the federal loan is critical to keeping that schedule, officials said. They are turning in a pre-application -- basically a request to get invited to submit an official application.

"We have to tell our story in 20 pages," said Anne Mayer, executive director of the transportation commission. "We have to sell our story."

The proposal is due to federal officials on March 1. Last year, about $1.2 billion in loans were available nationally. If the amount remains constant, there will be intense competition for the money, local officials said.

Part of making the pitch for the toll lanes, outlined in letters to Boxer, Feinstein and LaHood from the Monday Morning Group -- a cadre of local business leaders -- is the region's high unemployment rate and the job creating potential of the project. Officials estimate 800 permanent jobs will be created by the project, as businesses locate along the 91 corridor. Adding the lanes will also reduce congestion, officials believe.

The benefits make it a perfect choice for a federal loan, aimed at helping improve infrastructure, officials said.

The loan also demonstrates local officials believe the project will pay for itself, via the tolls collected from using the express lanes, similar to those already in Orange County.

The federal money is a loan, which means it must be repaid, but with very favorable terms, said Corey Boock, a lawyer helping manage the funding plan for the transportation commission. The TIFIA interest rate varies by day, but was 4.7 percent on Friday, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

The remainder of the project will be funded through the sale of bonds, backed by the toll revenues. County sales tax money can also be used to add the general purpose lane to the 91.

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