During a Wednesday appearance at the historic Union Depot rail and bus station in St. Paul, Minnesota, President Barack Obama is expected to ask Congress for $302 billion to update the country’s decaying transportation infrastructure. He will outline a four-year proposal that could be essential in maintaining the nation’s roadways; government officials have estimated the Highway Trust Fund — which finances federal highway and transit programs — will be insolvent as early as August. According to the Washington Post, the fund needs at least $100 billion over the next six years just to maintain current spending levels.
Obama’s plan to repair crumbling roads, railways, and bridges would be funded in part by a corporate tax overhaul that leading lawmakers in the Senate have already said is unlikely to pass this year. Still, the tour of the recently renovated St. Paul train station is meant to exhibit how federal spending has breathed new life into the transportation infrastructure of the Midwest and convince Congress to take up a major transportation bill this year. If the legislative body does not act and infrastructure programs repairing roads and bridges are allowed to expire, 700,000 jobs will be at risk, Obama will explain Wednesday. For reference, that figure — 700,000 lost jobs — equals the number of private-sector jobs eliminated by the United States economy per month in late 2008 and early 2009.
Lawmakers may say that the president’s concern for transportation jobs may be rather premature; the transportation law currently on the books will not expire until the end of of September, and Congress has begun formulating a reauthorization plan.
Yet, as the president’s commitment to using all tools available to him to “build an economy that ensures opportunity for all Americans” makes clear, Obama is not keen to sit back and leave action in the hands of the country’s legislature branch. Given the passage of major and costly legislation through a divided Congress has not been easy in recent years, it is not expected that the transportation bill will advance smoothly through both houses to the president’s desk. Case in point, after the last transportation law expired in 2009 when the U.S. deficit was casting a dark shadow over lawmaking, Congress could only manage to pass a series of one-year extensions until July 2012. Then, lawmakers agreed to a two-year plan that authorized programs supporting highways, public transit, bridges, and other transportation projects.
In particular, the president’s four-year, $302 billion proposal would add $150 billion worth of one-time funding to projects that would solve what Obama has called the United State’s national infrastructure crisis. The problem is that money would be sourced from an overhaul of the corporate tax system, a legislative goal that has long been on hold. But that detail is not expected to undermine the entire project. “While the president will show how to fully pay for his proposal in this way, he will also make clear that he is open to ideas and wants to work with Congress in a bipartisan way to get this done,” a White House official told the Los Angeles Times.
As a Department of Transportation memorandum illustrates, the president has repeatedly called for lawmakers to boost infrastructure spending as a means to spark job creation. “A well-functioning transportation system is critical to America’s economic future,” stated a Transportation Department budget document for fiscal 2013. “Whether it is by road, transit, air, rail, pipeline, or waterway, Americans rely on our transportation system to move people and goods safely, facilitate commerce, attract and retain businesses, and support jobs.”
Similarly, a 2013 White House press release noted that, ”Investing in infrastructure not only makes our roads, bridges, and ports safer and gives our businesses and workers the tools to compete successfully in the global economy, it also creates thousands of good American jobs that cannot be outsourced.”
Still, the response to his push for increase infrastructure spending has been mixed, and Congress has rejected on several occasions his plan to create a federal infrastructure bank that would be used to leverage private investment in transportation projects.
Comparatively, the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, which was born out of the 2009 stimulus package, has seen much more success. In total, grants worth $3.5 billion have helped to finance as many as 270 projects nationwide, of which the St. Paul historic train station is one. That historic depot — which last saw railroad traffic in 1971 — is at the conclusion of a $243 million transformation into a transportation hub for buses, a commuter rail system, and a new light-rail train that connects Minneapolis and St. Paul. Of the total costs, $35 million came from federal grants, which makes the depot is a prime location for Obama to build support for greater infrastructure spending ahead of the next round of TIGER grants. Congress has approved $600 million in funds for transportation renovation projects, a 26 percent increase from fiscal 2013 levels. Obama’s speech is scheduled to be shortly after 3 p.m. Eastern Time.
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