He doesn’t utter discredited terms such as “stimulus” or “shovel-ready” anymore, but President Obama renewed his push Monday for at least $50 billion more in spending on roads and bridges as he introduced his pick for secretary of transportation.
“We want to get people back to work, and we want to get this country moving,” Mr. Obama said in introducing transportation secretary nominee Anthony Foxx, the mayor of Charlotte, N.C. “Congress has to step up, fund these projects.”
It’s a pitch that lawmakers heard often in 2009, when Mr. Obama was advocating his $833 billion economic recovery plan, and they have heard it just about every year since. But government records show that a relatively small slice of the original stimulus package, $47.3 billion, has been spent on transportation projects that the administration said would help turn around the economy. That was less than 6 percent of the overall recovery funds.
An Associated Press analysis in 2011 found that transportation funding from the stimulus had a negligible effect on unemployment. Problems with permits for various construction projects prompted the president to comment at the time, “Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected.”
The administration’s record under outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood includes 350,000 miles of roads built or repaired, 20,000 bridges fixed or replaced, and 6,000 miles of rail upgraded. Even so, Mr. Obama is confronting Republican lawmakers who are skeptical of his latest transportation proposals such as high-speed rail, coupled with a lack of reliable funding for the highway bills that do get approval.
Rail projects go off track
Mr. LaHood predicted Monday that high-speed rail networks would be Mr. Obama’s “crowning glory.”
The administration has spent $12 billion on such rail projects with few results, but Mr. LaHood defended the initiative last month. He told CNN that high-speed trains would be in operation “as soon as we can get the kind of work that needs to be done started.”
The president’s proposed fiscal 2014 transportation budget is $76 billion, which would represent a 5.5 percent increase over 2012 levels. In addition, Mr. Obama is calling for $50 billion in stimulus spending, including $40 billion for “fix-it first” projects to upgrade roads, bridges and transit systems. Another $10 billion would be awarded competitively to innovative projects.
Where’s the money?
Emil H. Frankel, a transportation analyst with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, said that Mr. Obama deserves credit for recognizing the nation’s transportation needs, but that he failed to offer a credible way to pay for the projects. Among Mr. Obama’s ideas to finance transportation projects is to divert a “peace dividend” from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Republicans say is largely an accounting gimmick.
“I have to give the president high marks for talking about transportation and infrastructure and raising consistently the importance of investing in them,” said Mr. Frankel, who served in the George W. Bush administration. “But I don’t think he had really identified what the sources of funding would be. I don’t really see the leadership.”
With lawmakers and presidents reluctant to find new sources of revenue for transportation projects, Mr. Frankel said, Washington is turning increasingly to forms of borrowing such as Mr. Obama’s proposal for a national infrastructure bank. The plan would spend $10 billion to create an independent fund that would leverage private and public capital for infrastructure projects.
“I think that’s important, but I don’t think that’s really sufficient,” Mr. Frankel said.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, Pennsylvania Republican, said Mr. Obama’s transportation budget “repeats his call to increase spending without identifying a viable means to pay for it.”