Obama Calls For ‘More Creative’ Ways to Pay For Infrastructure

At a meeting today with his outside economic recovery advisers, President Obama emphasized the importance of shoring up the nation’s crumbling infrastructure but warned that the mounting federal deficit would require "more creative, new approaches to financing" investment in transit, bridges, and road repairs.

Obama_Nobel_1499199c.jpgPresident Obama (Photo: AP)

"I think my team will testify when we got several trillion dollars worth
of infrastructure that is falling apart, we need to put people to work,
doing the work that America needs done," Obama told reporters. "But we’re also in an era of
fiscal constraint, which means that we’ve got to start finding more
creative, new approaches to financing these projects."

The economic recovery meeting comes as the White House and congressional Democrats weigh the need for stronger efforts to help stem the rising unemployment rate.

Last week’s surprising announcement of 3.5 percent growth in the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) prompted a cautiously positive response from the Obama administration, reflecting concern that job losses could continue into next year.

Transportation spending is playing a central role in that economic recovery debate, with several senior members of Congress touting its job creation potential. The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin (IL), on Thursday suggested that lawmakers begin working on proposals to boost infrastructure investments, including a possible "front-loading" of the House’s stalled six-year transport bill.

But with the deficit at its highest level since World War II and a gas tax increase already ruled out by the White House, what kind of "more creative, new approaches" would the president’s team be prepared to support? During unrelated testimony at the House infrastructure committee on Thursday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood indicated that lack of funding continues to keep the issue in limbo:

The
president wants a very strong, comprehensive, robust transportation
bill. … We believe
it can make a difference; we believe it’ll put people to work.

But we also believe
we’ve got to find 4[00] or 500 billion dollars to pay for it, because
that’s probably what it takes to have the kind of bill that we all want
— that you want and that we want. We need some time to do that, to
put together a good bill and to find the money to do it.

Put simply, the same revenue gap that has surrounded the transport bill since June continues to puzzle the executive and legislative branches. The House infrastructure committee’s chairman, Jim Oberstar (D-MN), has projected that his legislation would require $140 billion in extra funds over its six-year lifetime, excepting money earned from the federal gas tax.

There is certainly no shortage of creative proposals on the table; Democratic lawmakers and the White House have both urged the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank to leverage private-sector contributions, while Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA), co-chairman of the advocacy group Building America’s Future, last week floated the idea of more open tolling on existing interstate highways.

Still, it’s difficult to see how infrastructure spending can gain the necessary political momentum without the administration throwing its weight behind the near-term passage of a specific idea or suite of ideas — "[putting] together a good bill and [finding] the money to do it," in LaHood’s words. And if the U.S. DOT’s support for an 18-month extension of existing law is any guide, that kind of specific, urgent endorsement is unlikely to come until 2011.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Drawing Ideas From Reformers, Obama Gets Behind 6-Year Transpo Plan

|
President Obama told reporters today that he’s committed to a six-year plan to rebuild 150,000 miles of roads, lay and maintain 4,000 miles of railways, restore 150 miles of runways, and create a national infrastructure bank. He made his remarks after meeting with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, former Secretaries Samuel Skinner and Norman Mineta, L.A. […]

White House Backs $50B For ‘Merit-Based Infrastructure Investment’

|
President Obama today threw his weight behind significant new transportation spending as part of a broad jobs bill taking shape in Congress, with $50 billion slated for transit, roads, bridges, and ports and the administration endorsing "merit-based infrastructure investment that leverages federal dollars." President Obama gave a high-profile jobs speech today. (Photo: NYT) During his […]

Obama Takes Another Swing at $50 Billion in Infrastructure Spending

|
President Obama is pressing for infrastructure investment again as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations. The president kicked off talks calling for an end to the debt ceiling, the extension of middle-class tax cuts, and $50 billion in infrastructure spending — a proposal that first arose last year as part of his ultimately unsuccessful American […]

Did Team Obama Gut Transit Funds From the Stimulus Package?

|
Reporting on last week’s stimulus letdown — when a proposal by US Rep. James Oberstar’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for $17 billion in mass transit spending was slashed by the Appropriations Committee, while $30 billion in proposed allocations for roads and bridges remained the same — Grist got word that the then-incoming Obama administration may […]

Bloomberg to Obama: Stimulus Aid Should Go Directly to Cities

|
A face-to-face back in April. Photo: Scoop08. Yesterday the President-elect unveiled the broad strokes of his economic recovery plan at a DC press event, and Mayor Bloomberg was there to give his response. Bloomberg’s message is critical for the prospects of green transportation in the upcoming stimulus package. Here’s the abbreviated version via Liz Benjamin […]