ST. PAUL, Minn. – President Obama visited a revived train station in the Midwest on Wednesday to extol the benefits of federal spending on light rail, roads and bridges, as he offered cautious praise for a Republican tax reform effort that could help foot the bill for major infrastructure investments.
At the freshly renovated Union Depot, Obama outlined his proposed four-year, $302-billion transportation plan that would be funded in part by closing loopholes and tax breaks for corporations. The president touted infrastructure spending as fast job creator and a key to expanding the economy.
“Other countries are not waiting to rebuild their infrastructure. They’re trying to out-build us today so they can out-compete us tomorrow,” Obama told the crowd about 1,300 people. “They know that if they have the fastest trains on the planet or the highest-rated airports or the busiest, most efficient ports, that businesses will go there. … We want them to come here to the United States of America. And that means the best airports and the best roads and the best trains should be right here in America.”
If Congress doesn’t renew infrastructure programs by fall, the president warned, more than 700,000 jobs will be at risk. The Highway Trust Fund, funded by gasoline taxes, is projected to run out of money at the end of August, and the transportation law authorizing programs expires soon after.
Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who traveled with the president, dubbed the deadlines the “transportation cliff.” Obama warned that, if money for projects dries up, “we could see construction projects stopped in their tracks, machines sitting idle, workers off the jobs.”
Despite those risks, it will be difficult to pass major transportation legislation through a divided Congress, which has generally been averse to costly and complicated bills. After the last major transportation law expired in 2009, deficit-focused lawmakers passed a series of one-year extensions until July 2012, when they agreed to a two-year plan for highways, public transit, bridges and other transportation projects. Meanwhile, the money flowing to the highway fund has dwindled as Americans drive more fuel-efficient vehicles and the tax, 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn’t been raised in 20 years.
Obama’s four-year proposal would depend on not one, but two major pieces of legislation passing this year -- since it would be funded in part by revenue generated by the still-theoretical overhaul of the business tax code. Obama’s proposal would inject $150 billion in one-time spending into projects aimed at tackling what he calls the nation’s infrastructure “crisis.”
A White House spokesman said the president was encouraged this week by a draft proposal from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), which would close some loopholes Obama has long opposed and use revenue to pay for infrastructure projects. But with opposition from GOP conservatives, the administration was “realistic” about the proposal’s chances in an election year.
Obama has long called for more infrastructure spending to spark job creation, with mixed success. Congress has repeatedly rejected his plan to create an federal infrastructure bank that could leverage private investment in projects.
On Wednesday, Obama braved frigid February weather to highlight a far more successful initiative. The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant program was created as part of the 2009 stimulus legislation. The grants have sent $3.5 billion to 270 projects across the nation, including the revival of the historic train station in downtown St. Paul.
The depot, which saw the last train leave the station in 1971, is winding down a decade-long, $243-million transformation to a transportation hub for commuter rail, buses and a new light-rail service. Local officials won about $35 million in federal grants for the renovation project.
Obama toured the light-rail maintenance facility – marveling at the “spiffy” new trains – as he praised modern technology and accepted the first honorary ticket on a new line that will connect downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. In his remarks, he joked about his love of the subzero wind chill: “I was, like, this is balmy. And February in Minnesota, can’t beat it.” And he gave a shout out to T.J. Oshie, the Minnesota hockey player who shot the winning goal when the U.S. team faced the Russians at the Sochi Olympics. “And T.J.’s shoot-out performance against the Russians, I must say I enjoyed a lot.”
Congress approved $600 million for the TIGER grant program, a 26% increase over fiscal year 2013. The money will be awarded in a competition that will prioritize “transformative” projects, the White House said.
The Department of Transportation will reward projects that increase economic opportunity and “make it easier for Americans to get to jobs, school and other opportunities, promote neighborhood revitalization and business expansion, and reconnect neighborhoods that are unnaturally divided by physical barriers such as highways and railroads,” the White House said.