DALLAS - Not many people at a White House-sponsored small business conference here raised their hands when Federico Pena, secretary of transportation, asked how many had heard of his agency's loan program.

It did not come as a great surprise to Mr. Pena.

"We're having conferences throughout the country to get the word out, because I'm very frustrated that we've had these programs for years and nobody knows about them," the secretary said later. "It's one thing to have a program and not tell anybody. It's something else to have a program, expand it, and aggressively make it available to people."

Since 1991, the agency has expanded the program from less than $250,000 in loans to $7.2 million in short-term loans last fiscal year. This year, it is estimated that the dollar volume of loans will expand another 78%, to around $12.8 million.

Nonetheless, the program's obscurity is likely due to the restrictions placed on it. For one, only companies certified as disadvantaged can use the program. Even then, funds can go only to prime contractors or subcontractors on a project using Transportation Department funding.

If these requirements are met, the program offers some advantages. For eligible companies, the department will extend a direct line of credit equal to 75% of the invoiced amounts for work performed on these projects, up to $500,000. Interest on the loan is set at prime.

"The beauty of the program is that the company has a way to improve its cash flow by not having to wait for its money to come in," said Emily Solomon, manager of the program for the Transportation Department.

The program is off limits for most banks, however. Ms. Solomon said cooperative agreements have been established with a limited number of minority-owned banks that are permitted to extend an additional 10% of the invoice amount. The agency in turn deposits funds for the project in these banks to lend to the borrower.

Mr. Pena said the department attempts to work with the Small Business Administration to ensure the two do not trip over each other in serving the same borrowers.

"In some cases a company may not qualify for the SBA's programs, and we'll be able to help," he said.

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