In his State of the Union address, President Obama, stating that the U.S. lead in infrastructure has "slipped," issued a strong call for more spending on highways, transit and high-speed rail.
Infrastructure advocates welcomed Obama's comments, delivered on Jan. 25 before a joint session of Congress. But a proposal to hike federal non-defense funding will run into opposition from anti-spending Republicans--who now control the House and constitute a larger minority in the Senate than they did in the last Congress.
Obama's infrastructure plan will include a "comprehensive, six-year plan to leverage our resources to repair our crumbling roads, bridges and transit," according to a White House fact sheet released shortly before the Jan. 25 evening speech. That proposal will be released with the President's fiscal 2012 budget request, the White House added. The budget proposal is expected in February.
The White House also said that the six-year plan "will feature up-front investments that will both help generate hundreds of thousands of jobs now and lay a foundation for future economic growth that will benefit all Americans."
In addition, it will include an infrastructure bank, which the White House said would use federal funds to leverage private financing for "projects of national and regional significance."
In his speech before a joint session of Congress, Obama said that "rebuilding America" was a step in "winning the future." But neither the President nor the White House statement said how much money he would propose.
However, late last year, Obama did call for $50-billion in up-front spending for surface transportation, and a senior Dept. of Transportation official had said that would be part of the administration's surface transportation reauthorization proposal.
Obama's comments about infrastructure were general, but he discussed the topic at some length. He said, "Our infrastructure used to be the best--but our lead has slipped....Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they gave us a "D."
"We have to do better," he said. The President noted that since his administration has started the rebuilding effort, and added, "Tonight I'm proposing that we redouble these efforts."
The plan will involve "repairing crumbling roads and bridges," he said, but in a nod to those who have called for reshaping current programs, he added, "We will make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment and pick projects based on what's best for the economy, not politicians."
Obama also set a goal of giving 80% of the U.S. access to high-speed rail in 25 years. The Dept. of Transportation has awarded about $10 billion in high-speed rail funds since early 2010. About $4 billion of that has been obligated.
But there has been a backlash of late, most notably a rejection of previously awarded rail funds to Wisconsin and Ohio by those states' new Republican governors.
Obama's comments come at a time when the House's new Republican leaders have launched their own drive--to cut non-defense spending to 2008 levels.
Aware of the GOP plan, Obama in his speech also proposed a five-year freeze on domestic spending. But that isn't likely to go far enough for some Republicans.
The new House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman, John Mica (R-Fla.) said after Obama's speech, “After the Administration derailed a major six-year transportation bill in 2009, it is encouraging that they are now on board with getting infrastructure projects and jobs moving again. However, just another proposal to spend more of the taxpayers’ money, when we have billions of dollars sitting idle tied up in government red tape, will never get our economic car out of the ditch."
Mica added, “We’ve got to do more with less to improve our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner.”
The President's remarks unsurprisingly drew praise from transportation and construction groups, who have lobbied for decades for higher public-works funding and have pointed with worry that the next long-term surface transportation bill is already 15 months late.
Stephen E. Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, said, “In an era of fly specking the federal budget, the President was right to distinguish between wasteful government spending and necessary infrastructure investments."
Terry O'Sullivan, general president of the laborers' union, said, "We are thrilled to see President Obama embrace an argument we have been making for years: Building America’s roads, bridges, rails and runways is not only our best option for getting people working again, but also is essential to America’s long-term future."
Peter Ruane, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association's CEO, said, "The time is long past due for Congress and the President to work together in a bipartisan manner to develop and invest in a strategic, national transportation plan that is transparent, performance driven and provides the personal mobility, transportation hubs and multi-modal, critical commerce corridors America needs to remain an economic superpower."