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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: ##
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.

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