President Obama on Wednesday vowed to speed up major construction projects by cutting federal red tape, part of his push to show he can make an impact without relying on Congress.
With the Tappan Zee Bridge and its partially built replacement looming behind him, Obama said his administration would speed up infrastructure projects by streamlining permitting and improving transparency. The changes, he said, will increase job growth, repair crumbling infrastructure and keep the U.S. competitive with its rivals.
"First-class infrastructure attracts first-class jobs," Obama said, speaking to about 250 people over the hum of bridge traffic.
He said his administration had approved permits to replace the nearly 60-year-old Tappan Zee in just a year and a half, cutting the approval process from the typical three to five years. The new bridge is one of the biggest engineering projects in the country, carrying a price tag of roughly $4 billion.
In December, federal officials awarded the project a $1.6 billion-low-interest loan, the largest-ever award through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program.
Obama used the bridge as an example of why Congress must fund similar projects and pass a transportation bill that will replenish the soon-to-be tapped-out Highway Trust Fund. The federal fund for highway and transit projects is likely to be insolvent by the fall if lawmakers don't agree on a new funding source. Obama's proposals have so far been dismissed by House Republicans. And while a group of senators works on a deal, the president is trying this week to apply some public pressure.
The White House said that 112,000 highway and 5,600 transit projects were at stake, and that about 700,000 jobs could be lost if Congress didn't act.
Obama tried to cast the issue as bipartisan, but he nevertheless took a few political shots as his opponents. Republicans have cut money for new building projects and refused to work with him out of political spite, he said.
"Usually they show up at ribbon-cuttings for projects they refuse to fund," Obama said.
The president tried to show he's not waiting for Congress to move – although his announcement Wednesday demonstrated how limited his options are.
As part of his plan to "modernize" permitting, Obama has ordered federal agencies to collaborate on the multiple environmental reviews that often slow the pace of construction. He'll add 11 new projects, including one in Riverside, Calif., to an online permitting "dashboard" to improve interagency cooperation and transparency. And he's called on all agencies to better synchronize and expedite their work, the White House said.