By Joan Gralla
NEW YORK, April 18 (Reuters) - A top Democrat in the U.S. Congress raised the possibility on Friday of creating a federal infrastructure bank to help pay for an array of projects, from roads to pipelines to subways, that also could create jobs and improve the environment.
The new debt-selling bank would be an independent federal entity that would evaluate major projects and use various financial tools to fund them, explained House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
'With the economy slowing down and job losses accelerating, we must look for opportunities to take advantage of the stimulative effect of investing in infrastructure,' Pelosi said in a speech prepared for delivery to the Regional Plan Association, a think tank.
Pelosi offered no details about the options she raised, including creating a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas permits that could raise money for mass transit or other infrastructure needs.
Pelosi said, however, that in addition to the long list of work needed to fix deficient bridges, roads and dams and aging pipelines and levees, more efficient roads and bigger mass transit systems could cut the nation's reliance on oil imports.
She vowed to explore these 'innovative' approaches in Congress, where Democrats think more should be done to stimulate a lagging U.S. economy, while President George W. Bush wants to first see the impact of a $168 billion economic stimulus law enacted in February.
Pelosi predicted the nation will see more public-private partnerships though she stressed the importance of safeguarding taxpayers. That concern has scuttled or delayed blockbuster deals to sign long-term leases for major highways to private investors in a number of states, from Texas to New Jersey.
'It is important to ensure that the public interest is well served in public-private partnerships, since they are here to stay and likely to grow in importance,' Pelosi said.
Drivers likely will be paying higher tolls, she said, again adding safeguards were needed. 'Our challenge will be to ensure that tolls are equitable, that they reduce congestion for everyone, and the revenues are used to improve infrastructure, not siphoned off for other purposes.'
Pelosi gave her address in New York City just a few weeks after the state legislature killed independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan, costing the city $354 million in federal dollars.
The mayor proposed fighting gridlock by charging commuters $8 to enter Manhattan. Bloomberg modeled his plan after systems used in Singapore and London; a few other U.S. cities are experimenting with this method.
Improving roads and public transit would cut reliance on imported oil, Pelosi said, noting 90 percent of this fuel is burned for transportation.