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Obama Pushes Congress for More Spending on Transportation

February 26, 2014
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President Barack Obama is pressing Congress for money to repair and modernize U.S. roads, bridges and rail systems as the Highway Trust Fund runs low and proposals to raise revenue are blocked in Congress.

A week before his 2015 budget is released, Obama is reviving his proposals for infrastructure spending with a four-year, $302 billion package of projects. They would be paid for partially by changes in business taxes that would bring in a one-time gain in government revenue of $150 billion.

The president is making his pitch today in St. Paul, Minnesota, the twin city to Minneapolis where an interstate highway bridge collapsed in 2007 and became a symbol for crumbling U.S. infrastructure.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters traveling with the president that the administration wants to get beyond the "Band-Aid" solution of trying to keep patching up roadways, bridges and rail lines.

The issue has become more urgent as the federal Highway Trust Fund, supplied by taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, is at risk of running dry. The Department of Transportation has projected that current demands on the fund will cause it be running a deficit as early as August. State and municipal funding for roads also are under stress.

 

Stable Revenue

 

"We need user-related revenues that are stable, predictable and growing to provide the certainty needed for planning and making capital investments," Janet Kavinoky, executive director of transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in an e-mail.

The chamber is among the groups backing the higher fuel taxes to help finance infrastructure spending. Republicans lawmaker have said higher fuel taxes won’t pass Congress and Obama has shied away from calling for a raise.

Transportation funding was one of the subjects that Obama discussed yesterday during a private meeting with House Speaker John Boehner.

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said today there are no plans to shift general revenue from the Treasury to the trust fund.

"There’s no conversation about bailouts," Boehner told reporters in Washington.

"We’ve got to find a funding mechanism to fund our infrastructure needs," Boehner said, adding that leaders have been looking for at least a year and a half for a solution. "I wish I could report to you that we’ve found it, but we haven’t."

 

Seeking Ideas

 

Foxx said the administration will keep working with Congress to find a funding source, even with raising the fuel tax off the table.

"The one thing nobody wants to do is see the highway trust fund go insolvent," he said aboard Air Force One.

Obama today is scheduled to announce the Transportation Department is making $600 million in competitive grants available for projects. The money is part of a program, Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, that originally was part of the economic stimulus package passed in 2009. The grant program was funded in the bipartisan budget deal that Obama signed on Jan. 17.

Obama is speaking today at Union Depot, which was shuttered in the 1971 as railroad passenger service in the U.S. declined.

As Obama’s first transportation secretary, Ray LaHood in 2009 and 2011 traveled to the depot in St. Paul, the first time when it was in shambles and seeking federal support for a $243 million renovation and the second time in 2011 after renovation was underway. The depot is in the city’s downtown and now includes retail and event space as well as a station opening later this year for the region’s light-rail transit system.

 

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