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AASHTO Journal

Obama Uses State of the Union to Call <br>for Greater Infrastructure Investments
President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to call for investing in America's future and spurring job creation by increasing federal spending for innovation, education, and infrastructure.

Obama called rebuilding America "the third step in winning the future." To attract new businesses to America, the president said, the country needs the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information.

"We'll put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges," Obama said. "We'll make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based [on] what's best for the economy."

John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, issued a statement supporting Obama's vision for transportation investment.

"We continue to be encouraged that President Obama supports investing in America's transportation infrastructure -- recognizing the role it plays in creating jobs and growing the national economy," Horsley said. "The president understands that America needs a sustainable federal transportation program that helps state departments of transportation modernize and maintain our nation's transportation systems."

Obama noted that America's infrastructure used to be the best, but the country has slipped.

"South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do," he said during the State of the Union. "Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their 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.'"

The president said the country has to do better.

"America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, constructed the Interstate Highway System," he said. "The jobs created by these projects didn't just come from laying down track or pavement. They came from businesses that opened near a town's new train station or the new off-ramp."

Obama noted that states have used American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding during the last two years to begin rebuilding for the 21st century, an endeavor that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry.

"Tonight, I'm proposing that we redouble those efforts," the president said. "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail. This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying -- without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway."

Horsley said state transportation departments look forward to working with the administration and Congress to pass a new surface transportation reauthorization bill this year.

"Enacting a multiyear bill with sufficient funding will ensure we have a safe and efficient transportation system that can create and sustain hundreds of thousands of jobs, and that will continue to support our recovering economy," he said.

Mica Cautions That Transportation Spending Is Likely to Shrink

Despite Obama's call for increased investment in infrastructure during Tuesday's State of the Union address, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Florida, said this week that transportation stakeholders should expect a bill that calls for spending only what the Highway Trust Fund can sustain.

The Highway Account of the trust fund is projected to run short of money next fiscal year, the Congressional Budget Office reported Wednesday. (see related story)

The last surface transportation law, enacted in 2005 and known as "SAFETEA-LU" authorized $287 billion in highway and transit projects. CQ Today reported a Mica-drafted surface transportation bill this year might contain only $250 billion in new budgetary authority over the next six years -- less than the last law despite growing infrastructure needs. That figure would be half of the $500 billion bill that Mica's Democratic predecessor, James Oberstar of Minnesota, unsuccessfully sought to pass in the last Congress.

Transportation interest groups widely supported the funding level proposed by Oberstar in 2009. An increase in revenue dedicated to the Highway Trust Fund would be needed to carry out a transportation investment program that large. The Obama administration has opposed increasing fuel taxes during difficult economic times, however.

Mica said instead of looking for ways to get more money into the trust fund, he would rather find ways to better leverage the money that's already coming in.

"I could take up to a $250 billion bill and leverage it by five, four times," Mica said. "I could have a huge amount of capacity in helping to finance projects."

Mica cited tolling, public/private partnerships, and tinkering with existing successful bond and loan programs as policies he will pursue to better leverage existing transportation revenue.

In a statement issued after the State the Union address, Mica criticized the Obama administration for derailing House T&I Committee efforts to move a six-year surface transportation reauthorization bill in 2009.

"It is encouraging that they are now on board with getting infrastructure projects and jobs moving again," Mica said. "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. We've got to do more with less to improve our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner."

House Republicans have vowed to cut federal government spending. They passed a resolution Tuesday directing the House Budget Committee chairman to set nonsecurity discretionary spending limits for the remainder of this fiscal year that would roll back spending to Fiscal Year 2008 levels. (see related story)

"Certainly we need to tighten our budgetary belt, but it is folly to suggest, as some have, that we blindly slash investments in basic infrastructure -- our roads and bridges, water systems and schools, and research and development -- which are so vital to our long-term economic recovery," Rep. Nick Rahall, D-West Virginia and ranking minority member of the House T&I Committee, said in a statement. "We should, instead, focus our limited resources and our energies on out-building other nations."

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing Wednesday to examine transportation's role in economic growth and job creation. AASHTO President Susan Martinovich was among the witnesses who testified. (see related story)

Business, Labor Groups Support Call for Additional Investment

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue joined AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in issuing a statement on the State of the Union address.

"America's working families and business community stand united in applauding President Obama's call to create jobs and grow our economy through investment in our nation's infrastructure," Donohue and Trumka said. "Whether it is building roads, bridges, high-speed broadband, energy systems, and schools, these projects not only create jobs and demand for businesses, they are an investment in building the modern infrastructure our country needs to compete in a global economy. With the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO standing together to support job creation, we hope that Democrats and Republicans in Congress will also join together to build America's infrastructure."

Numerous other interest groups also issued statements this week commending the president for drawing the nation's attention to improving infrastructure.

"Increased investment to repair and rebuild our aging roads, bridges, public transportation, and water infrastructure will create jobs, reinvigorate our economy, and strengthen America's global economic competitiveness," said American Public Works Association President George Crombie. "All segments of the economy, whether businesses, services, or manufacturing, rely on efficient, well-maintained infrastructure to move commerce, create jobs, and strengthen our economic competitiveness. ... A major step toward achieving the economic goals the president laid out in his State of the Union address would be immediate passage of a long-term surface transportation authorization."

1/28/2011
Questions regarding this article may be directed to editor@aashtojournal.org.