WASHINGTON - In nominating Federico Pena last week to be his transportation secretary, President-elect Bill Clinton tapped a former municipal official who played an instrumental role in financing the country's newest airport.

The former mayor of Denver is one of three cabinet nominees with experience in issuing tax-exempt bonds.

One of Pena's claims to fame as mayor of Denver from 1982 to 1991 was his campaign to finance the construction of a new airport for the city. Several months ago, Denver completed the final bond sale for the $2.4 billion facility.

"Having that firsthand knowledge of a massive infrastructure project in the Denver airport, and the role the bond market can play in helping to bring to reality the needed financing for those projects, I think [Pena's appointment] is potentially a very positive thing," said Micah S. Green, the executive vice president of the Public Securities Association.

Green added that Clinton appears to have taken pains to put former municipal officials in slots where their expertise will be most needed.

"If you look at the three areas that are the most state and local capital project-related - transportation, housing, education - they [will be] occupied by former state and local officials," Green said.

The two other former municipal officials slated to head cabinet departments are former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, Clinton's nominee to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and former South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley, whom Clinton tapped to be secretary of education.

Before serving two terms as Denver's mayor, Pena served two terms in the Colorado House of Representatives, and was elected House minority leader in 1981. After his mayoral tenure, Pena opened an investment advisory firm. He recently headed Clinton's transportation transition team.

During his second term as mayor, Pena presided over a large capital spending program, which was financed in large part by general obligation and revenue bonds.

In addition to using bond financing for the airport, Denver under Pena issued $241 million in 1989 for bridges, viaducts, and roads, and $93 million in 1990 for new library branches. Pena also created a Clean Air Campaign in Denver, which was designed to reduce carbon monoxide pollution.

Clinton, meanwhile, has declared that improving the country's transportation network is one of his main goals.

"Just as constructing interstate highways in the 1950s ushered in two decades of unparalleled growth, creating the concrete foundations of the 21st century will help put Americans back to work and spur economic growth," Clinton said in Putting People First, the economic plan he released during the presidential campaign.

Clinton's transportation proposals include:

* Increasing federal spending to renovate roads, bridges, and railroads.

* Creating a high-speed rail network linking major cities and commercial hubs.

* Developing "smart" highway technology to expand the capacity, speed, and efficiency of major roadways.

* Developing high-tech, short-haul aircraft.

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