Student Loans: Some Issues to Consider

Although these are not the only aspects of student loan policy that will come up in the next legislative session, these issues will drive the discussion regarding student loans.

Student loan debt is being reported as the next big “mortgage crisis” and private student loan lenders will likely be receiving the same congressional attention that private lenders did during the mortgage crisis.  Although allowing students to declare bankruptcy on their student loans would likely cause a wave of bankruptcies, this policy will still be up for debate.  It could very well serve as a bargaining tool for reaching a middle-of-the-road legislative alternative.  A recent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report on student loans will not necessarily be the impetus for a legislative fix, but it will serve as the foundation for scheduling hearings and framing the debate.

How these two issues are framed will depend on the outcome of the election.  It is hard to draw any true conclusions on what the policy will end up looking like but they will be major discussion points when developing those policies.

The veterans’ issue is a hot one right now for student loans and will continue to be regardless of the outcome of the elections.  As troops are returning, more and more are taking advantage of their educational benefits.  The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a specific office set up for identifying consumer fraud  perpetrated against veterans.  Holly Petreaus, General David Petreaus’ wife, leads that office and her focus as of late has been a revaluation of the veteran student loan process and the targeting of veterans for loans from unscrupulous private lenders.
 

Infrastructure Alert - June 28, 2012

Last night the members of the Congressional Transportation Conference Committee agreed on a bicameral long term transportation reauthorization bill.  House GOP leaders now have until Saturday at midnight to approve the bill prior to the expiration of the current financing measure. The two year bill, which would provide $8.4 billion in funding each year, is similar in structure to a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate earlier this year.   Industry leaders have been particularly vocal in encouraging the passage of a multi-year bill as another short-term extension would leave many projects around the country in jeopardy.  Additionally, the transportation legislation will include a one-year freeze for government subsidized student loan rates.  Off the hill, the TSA allows an additional airport to hire private screeners and states continue to look for alternative solutions to meet infrastructure needs in a difficult economic climate.

On the Hill

Early this morning the conference committee released a new long term surface transportation bill. The bill (H.R. 4348) represents the first agreement on long-term transportation funding legislation since 2005.  Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said that this “tentative agreement establishes federal highway, transit and highway safety policy and keeps programs at current funding levels through the end of fiscal year 2014. Unlike the last transportation bill, which contained over 6,300 earmarks, this bill doesn’t include any earmarks. This bill also does not increase taxes.” Funding has been extended nine times over an almost four-year period since the expiration of the last federal highway bill.  The agreement came together when Republicans agreed to drop controversial provisions from the legislation, such as approval for the Keystone XL pipeline and the blocking of government regulation of coal ash.  In return, Democrats gave up on $1.4 billion for conservation and agreed to allow states more leeway in how they use money that was once mandated for landscaping, bike improvements and pedestrian walkways.

Capping off a particularly productive week for Congress, Senator Kyl (R-Ariz.) has said legislators agreed to put a one-year freeze on government subsidized student loan rates.  It is believed the transportation and student loan bills may combined and presented and voted on as a package.  If an agreement was not reached, federal Stafford student loans would have doubled on July 1.

Elsewhere, the House is continuing work on the fiscal 2013 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies appropriations bill.  A vote on the final bill is expected by the end of the week.  It is possible that certain levels in the appropriations bill will change based on the authorization bill being worked out by the conference committee.

According to Greg DiLoreto, the president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), U.S. infrastructure projects will probably keep their near-failing grade with the ASCE issues its next report on U.S. public facilities in 2013.  The current grade for our country’s infrastructure from the ASCE is a “D”.

At the Agencies

On June 22, Transportation Secretary LaHood announced that 47 transportation projects in 34 states and D.C. will receive a total of almost $500 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) 2012 program.  Applications for this most recent round of grants totaled $10.2 billion, far exceeding the $500 million set aside for the program.

On June 21 the Senate Commerce Committee questioned acting Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator, Michael Huerta, who was nominated to the position by President Obama. The hearing included many questions regarding FAA’s delayed safety rules and overwhelming number of whistleblower complaints. Unlike other high-level U.S. political appointees, who serve only as long as the president who nominated them is in office, the FAA job has a five-year term.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has approved private airport security screeners for Orlando’s Sanford International Airport.  A program allowing for airports to hire private security screeners was included in the $59 billion FAA Authorization bill approved earlier this year.

Earlier this month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood awarded $37.5 million to the King County Department of Transportation to build new bus rapid transit lines as part of greater-Seattle’s new six corridor rapid transit system.  The new funding comes from the Federal Transit Administration’s Bus and Bus Facilities Grant Program.

In the States

Florida: On June 14 Florida Governor Rick Scott held a ceremonial bill signing at the Port of Miami for a package of transportation bills totaling more than $450 million and enabling the bonding of another $450 million.  Florida's 14 seaports handled nearly $149 billion worth of goods in 2011 – 50.4 percent of which came from South and Central American – and it is expected that this number will rise as a result of the widening of the Panama Canal.  $60 million is slated to go directly toward improving the ports while the majority of the funding is to improve Florida’s roadways.

New Jersey: Assembly Democrats are attempting to block Governor Chris Christie’s plan to borrow $260 million for transportation funding.  Although Christie’s original transportation plan called for a reduction in borrowing, due to budget shortfalls – partly caused by a recently instituted tax cut – New Jersey is planning on borrowing even more in 2013 than it did in 2012.  Assembly Democrats believe it is fiscally irresponsible to borrow money to pay for a tax cut the state might not be able to afford.  Even if the bill is ultimately passed, it would put more pressure on the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which has not been able to cover yearly payments on its existing debt.

New Jersey/Pennsylvania: New Jersey Transit has approved a rapid-transit bus route to connect heavily traveled southern New Jersey roads with downtown Philadelphia.  The $46 million project would let buses travel on highway shoulder lanes and the median for part of the trip.  The route could be in service as soon as 2020.

New York: Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that $4.4 million has been awarded to 10 companies, municipalities, and other entities to enable more than 325 new electric-vehicle (EV) charging stations to be installed across New York State.  New York State's electric-vehicle charging stations are supported by a joint effort by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority's Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment Demonstration Program and the U.S. Department of Energy. New York's transportation sector has considerable potential for energy efficiency. Transportation makes up about three-fourths of the state's oil consumption, and nearly 40 percent of the state's greenhouse gas emissions.

Last week New York City’s Department of Transportation announced a plan to open bidding for the management of 80,800 parking spots across all five boroughs. While some critics are already drawing parallels to the disastrous sale of Chicago’s parking meters in 2008, New York City intends to retain the power to set rates and enforce penalties.  Further differentiating the plan from the Chicago plan is that NYC’s objective is not to structure an upfront payment.  In Chicago, it is estimated that motorists may pay a Morgan Stanley-led partnership at least $11.6 billion to park at city meters over the next 75 years, 10 times what former Mayor Richard Daley got when he leased the system in 2008.  NYCDOT’s request for qualifications is open through July 31.

Texas: Texas State Highway 130, which is currently under construction and will run between San Antonio and Austin, may become the first U.S. road to post a speed limit of 85-mph.  Texas passed a law last year allowing speed limits of up to 85 mph on newly constructed highways deemed safe enough for such high speeds.  Texas and Utah are the only states that even allow speed limits of 80-mph.

Virginia: Governor Bob McDonnell has recently recommitted to a series of public-private partnership projects, including the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, Interstate 64 on the Peninsula, Interstate 95, and possibly the Port of Virginia.  McDonnell’s decision to rely so heavily on the private sector stems from frustration with the state’s legislature.  The governor of Virginia has the power to circumvent the legislature pursuant to the Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995, which allows private entities to enter into agreements to construct, improve, maintain and operate transportation facilities. All in all, there are eight projects that are designated with "candidate" status for public-private partnerships and an additional 14 in the "conceptual" phase. Virginia is currently seeking public comment on these P3 projects.