He said DOT is taking steps to accelerate its TIFIA processing. For example, he said the program now will be managed by the Office of the Secretary—a move on some industry officials’ suggested to-do lists.

Foxx said in his prepared testimony, “This will create a more streamlined management approach for effectively implementing a TIFIA program that is increasingly receiving large and complex loan requests from multi-modal sponsors of highway, transit and rail projects.”

One reason for the slow approval pace is a personnel shortage. Last year's big TIFIA funding jump strained the program’s existing TIFIA workforce. Foxx said DOT is beefing up its TIFIA staff, adding 10 people in the past year, with plans to hire another 16 or so.

Boxer noted that DOT officials’ caution on TIFIA is understandable. She said, “They don’t want to make a mistake, because … politics will implode on whoever makes a mistake, whether it’s a Republican administration or a Democratic one.”

The new secretary explained that DOT is focusing heavily on the TIFIA projects' creditworthiness. If a project clears that hurdle, DOT will invite state or local agency sponsors to file a loan application. The emphasis on the credit check is a good idea, Foxx said, “so that, when we get to the application phase, we can move much faster.”

After his committee appearance, Foxx told reporters that, besides the California state Route 91 proposal, five other candidates for TIFIA loans have advanced through creditworthiness checks and been invited to file loan applications this year. “And I think we’re going to see a lot more,” he added. Asked whether loans for the five projects will be approved in 2013, Foxx replied, “It’s possible. It’s very possible.”

According to DOT, the five projects are Chicago DOT’s Riverwalk/Wacker Drive, the Chicago Dept. of Aviation’s automated transit system for the O’Hare airport rental-car facility, the Los Angeles DOT’s LA 1 toll road, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Westside Subway and LA Metro’s Regional Connector rail transit extension.

The committee's top Republican, David Vitter (R-La.) said he and other senators who drew up MAP-21's TIFIA provisions wanted the program "to be more or less a first-come, first–serve rolling process” with “clear, objective criteria.” Vitter said he is concerned that, instead, DOT is picking and choosing projects to approve.