President Obama’s Hollow Push for Infrastructure Investment

With the Tappan Zee Bridge behind him, President Obama made his case for more infrastructure spending. Photo: ##https://twitter.com/TheObamaDiary/status/466676032834387969/photo/1##TheObamaDiary/Twitter##
With an old highway bridge and the cranes building its replacement behind him, President Obama made his case for more infrastructure spending. Photo: TheObamaDiary/Twitter

This afternoon, President Obama stood by New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge and made a speech pressing Congress to do something about infrastructure investment. It’s part of his Infrastructure Week push for Congress to pass a fully funded transportation reauthorization bill. Many other groups are spending this week sounding the same horn.

“If they don’t act by end of summer, federal funding for transportation projects will run out. The cupboard will be bare,” Obama said today. “Nearly 700,000 jobs will be at risk.”

“So far, at least, the Republicans who run this Congress seem to have a different priority,” he said. “Not only have they prevented, so far, efforts to make sure funding is still in place for what we’ve already got, but their proposal would actually cut job-creating grant programs that funded high-priority transportation projects in all 50 states — they’d cut ‘em by about 80 percent.”

Indeed, Obama has submitted a bill to Congress calling to increase federal transportation investment to $302 billion over the next four years. The problem is, his plan to pay for it — using what he calls “pro-growth” business tax reform and the repatriation of offshore profits — is falling on deaf ears in Congress. Advocates criticize the plan as a one-time gimmick, not a long-term funding source.

The most obvious and simple method of raising more revenue in the long run is to increase the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993 and has lost an estimated 37 percent of its purchasing power. Experts say an increase of 10 to 15 cents per gallon is needed to fill the gap in the nation’s transportation funding.

But the Obama administration has been adamant in its refusal to raise the gas tax. Though former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came out in favor of a 10 cent hike almost as soon as he left office, he toed the official line while at U.S. DOT, insisting that a hike was a non-starter. At a Commerce Committee hearing last week, LaHood’s successor, Anthony Foxx, disappointed senators by dodging a question about increasing the gas tax, saying only that he would “listen to Congress.”

The second most-talked-about solution to funding transportation — a vehicle-miles-traveled fee — has also gotten the kibosh from the Obama administration.

So today, Obama stood in front of a huge construction site asking Congress to address the infrastructure funding shortfall while last week, members of Congress sat on a dais asking the administration to address the infrastructure funding shortfall. In between, the Senate EPW Committee released its anemic bill. And even that meager proposal is still unfunded, and it’s a mystery whether the Finance Committee will find a way to make it possible.

Meanwhile, Obama’s choice of setting for this speech also deserves some attention. Yet again, he’s chosen a big highway bridge expansion project to highlight in his campaign to ramp up infrastructure funding. While there seems to be some momentum to improve transit options across the bridge, the sheer size of it — double the width of the current Tappan Zee — illustrates how states are still all too willing to waste billions on road projects.

Perhaps for his next big infrastructure speech, the president will choose a more inspiring project to highlight. California’s high-speed rail line is of a properly awe-inspiring scale, but perhaps it would be too controversial a backdrop. So what about LA’s Regional Connector or Chicago’s Englewood Flyover project for freight and passenger rail? Or right here in the DC area, there’s the Silver Line being built to Dulles Airport, one of the largest infrastructure projects currently underway in the entire country.

The Tappan Zee Bridge was one of the 14 projects the Obama administration chose in 2011 to be “fast-tracked” through the federal permitting process. At the same time Obama was speaking in New York, Vice President Biden was at Cleveland’s new Little Italy rail station, touting the federal role in expediting its completion. So transit-related symbolism was left to the Veep.

In his speech, Obama did make some nods to transit, announcing that his administration has chosen 11 new projects to help expedite, including Boston’s South Station and light rail north and south of Seattle. He also announced the launch of a new National Permitting Center and a new public dashboard of every infrastructure project in the country to ensure accountability.

  • Is Tappan Zee a complete bridge, cycle track, bike lanes, HOV/BRT, anything cool?

  • Bolwerk

    Nope. It might have some bus lanes for a commuter bus, which they may call BRT. (I know the term BRT is pretty malleable, but they are really pushing it this time.)

    This bridge represents everything wrong with infrastructure investment.

  • rt

    Is there any highway/bridge project this blog does approve of?

  • Charles

    Infrastructure is a low priority for most people according to polls … not surprising there’s no interest from anyone in expending political capital to raise the gas tax. Plus if they raised it the chief result would probably be a highway-building frenzy in rural and exurban areas, where the more powerful reps are from.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Hopefully it would not object to replacing existing bridges, when required, with perhaps bicycle and transit infrastructure added.

    Here is a question. Does the price for the contract allow an out for the second span, and how much would be saved? It wouldn’t be half in any event — there are staging costs that have to be amortized and design costs already sunk. But how much could it be?

    Don’t build the second span, and we have replaced the old bridge. (Too bad they didn’t put one more lane and a cycle track on the first span).

  • Yep, Larry nailed it. We heartily approve of sound maintenance of existing roads and bridges — it’s the inexorable push to expand car capacity that troubles us, especially when it’s being done with no accommodation for transit in a place as dense and transit-dependent as the New York region.

  • BB

    Well at least in 20 years we can see we warned you jerk.

  • 42apples

    The problem is that many Democrats (Obama included) don’t view infrastructure as a means to better transportation, but as a political ploy for “creating jobs.” Therefore, they will support new construction even when unnecessary since it will create more jobs than maintaining what we already have.

  • 42apples

    What does it say about Obama that he opposes raising the gas tax when everyone from the anti-car AAA to the lefties at the Chamber of Commerce support it?

  • As a NY tax payer, I am all for more federal money to come to NY State, but this is ridiculous. Why on earth are these entirely local projects funded by the feds? Get the federal government out of local projects altogether! These projects should be the sole responsibility of the states. Having federal dollars involved only encourages waste and corruption. The entire US DOT should be scrapped and handed off to the states, and the money saved used to lower federal taxes. Let individual states raise their taxes however much they see fit to pay for all this.

  • C Monroe

    I agree with most of what you are saying but the Feds are still needed in certain areas like in state to state connections and national standards. Funding should almost always be through the states and not National for almost all projects.

  • C Monroe

    Many Republicans will put in proposals for their own ‘jobs’ infrastructure spending, then vote no for the bill when they know it will pass. Seen it first hand with a local representative who put in a much needed train station in my city, then voted no on it. Funny thing is the train station is named after him.

  • C Monroe

    It is sad because they need more rail crossings for the Hudson.

  • HamTech87

    “Does the price for the contract allow an out for the second span, and how much would be saved?”

    Don’t see anyone answering this question, and not sure if both spans are going up simultaneously. As for the the cycle track, I’d be ok with leaving it out and investing the savings in cycling infrastructure on existing streets and paths in Westchester and Rockland. Lights on the South County Trail. Curb ramps on the Old Croton Aqueduct (and even some crushed stone). Protected bike lane on 119, 9 and 100.

  • Bolwerk

    They often end up supporting the most labor-intensive choices for that reason, too.

  • Bolwerk

    I used to like that idea, but now I’m more ambivalent.

    Well, it’s another case of it being a great idea if the rail supports freight or works as part of a wider HSR network or busy a transit network. But getting all that stuff together is some combination of impractical and illegal.

    Still, a rail connection (by itself) is significantly less wasteful than replacing the bridge.

  • 42apples

    Yup, and they’ll promote American manufacturing that doesn’t even exist http://systemicfailure.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/cost-of-a-new-mbta-subway-car/

  • Daniel

    It makes sense for the Feds to a half-dozen long routes, that is far from what they actually do. I’m no fan of the gas tax either. Tolling based on vehicle weight is a much fairer way to fund the interstates. There should be pollution taxes applied to all fuels but those funds should not be used for roads. We overbuilt the road network in the last five decades to the point where communities can’t support basic maintenance on over 90% of their roads. We need to eliminate about 70% of those roads and add tolls and raise local taxes to maintain the high value portions of the road network.

  • Tug Thumper

    Infrastructure should be federally determined since it needs to form a cohesive network. If anything should be local it should be social services.

  • blackobama.beep.com
    The mother of Obama Jr, Stanley Ann Dunham (in her original birth certificate she was named „Stanley A Dunham

    Jr” after her father, signed as a male), was a Jew (presumably), who choosed an Islamic lover, and was a member

    of the impaired secta Subud (for over 30 years) while she raised his son. So the son (Obama Jr) got in touch

    with the secta.
    In 1960 Ann Dunham signed in to the University of Hawaii. She took Russian language classes, where she met the

    islamic Barack Obama Sr.

    This mysterious java religious secta was founded by the Indonesian Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo,

    a.k.a.”Bapak,”, who got the interest of Ann Dunham Soetoro (last name by her second islamic husband, the

    stepfather of Obama Jr.), the mother of President Obama.
    By the way there were many Subud members on the University of Hawaii and the East-West Center.
    It is not a speculation, that in Indonesia the mother of Obama had a strong relation with the cult members of

    Subud. It is also an impressive sign, that her obsequies held on Hawaii , by Subud traditions, so she stayed a

    member of the Subud, until her death.
    The logical chain of the interesting relations mentioned above are ask new questions about Obamas real mission

    in the world…

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