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.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Cantor Orders Up Tax Cuts, Hold the Jobs

|
Congressional insiders say that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is refusing to hold an “all or nothing” vote on President Obama’s jobs bill. Cantor says he’ll bring “elements” of the bill to the floor but not the whole bill. It’s pretty clear which elements Cantor approves of. He expressed his preferences soon after the president unveiled […]

President Obama Pushes Congress For a Clean Extension of Transpo Bill

|
“I’m calling on Congress, as soon as they come back, to pass a clean extension of the surface transportation bill,” President Barack Obama said from the Rose Garden this morning. “This bill provides funding for highway construction, bridge repair, mass transit systems, and other essential projects that keep our people and our commerce moving quickly and […]

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. […]

In Push For Jobs Bill, Obama Picks the Wrong Bridge to Highlight

|
President Obama chose the home turf of two of his principal political opponents to highlight the need for more infrastructure investment in the U.S. Standing beneath the Brent Spence Bridge, which connects Cincinnati (the home city of House Speaker John Boehner) with Kentucky (the home state of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell), Obama made his […]

Answers to Your Top 6 Questions About Obama’s New Infrastructure Initiative

|
Last week, President Obama announced that amid Congressional dysfunction around transportation funding, he was taking action to foster infrastructure investment and economic growth. The Build America Investment Initiative will provide technical assistance to communities looking for guidance on how to leverage private dollars to build public works. But the initiative doesn’t actually provide any dollars itself. Here’s the […]