- Associated Press - Thursday, July 17, 2014

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - President Barack Obama announced a new initiative to boost private investment in America’s roads and bridges during a visit to Delaware on Thursday.

Obama used the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River as a backdrop for his speech at the Port of Wilmington.

“First-class infrastructure attracts investment and it creates first-class jobs,” Obama said.

But the president mentioned the bridge only in passing at the start of a 16-minute speech in which he touted improvement in the nation’s economy, said more must be done and decried congressional inaction and partisanship in Washington.

“We should be planning and investing in our future,” he said.

Obama’s initiative would encourage collaboration between state and local governments and private-sector investors, expand the market for public-private partnerships and make greater use of federal credit programs.

“There’s a lot of money out there around the world looking to invest in infrastructure because there’s a steady return on investment,” said Democratic Gov. Jack Markell. He acknowledged that there were no obstacles to private investment now, but suggested that Obama’s proposal is aimed at streamlining the process.

Obama did not offer any specifics.

“I’d be anxious to hear more about the private-sector dollars,” Delaware Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt said after Obama’s speech.

Meanwhile, the White House and Congress are trying to agree on a long-term solution to keep money flowing into the federal highway trust fund. The fund is expected to begin running out of money next month.

Separate from the trust fund, the federal government is helping pay for repairs to the I-495 bridge, which state officials ordered closed on an emergency basis last month because several supporting columns were tilting.

Recent inspections found no major problems with the bridge, a critical artery that normally carries an average of 90,000 vehicles on a bypass around Wilmington, reducing congestion on Interstate 95 through downtown.

State officials instead say the damage was caused when a contractor, without their knowledge, dumped a large mountain of dirt next to the bridge, and the weight of the dirt caused the ground underneath it to shift.

“Of course we would not be here today if the only challenge facing our transportation system was an unusual incident affecting one bridge,” Markell told invited guests as they waited for Obama’s arrival. “The condition of infrastructure statewide and across the country is unacceptable and cannot continue to support the world’s strongest economy.”

Republican Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Wilmington, said private investment in infrastructure is not a new concept, and he heard little new in Obama’s speech.

“If you’re going to put more money into transportation funding, it needs to come with accountability and reform,” added Lavelle. Hesaid the failure by state officials to notice the dirt pile next to the I-495 bridge and to respond quickly to warnings from citizens that something was wrong was “an example of no accountability.”

Meanwhile, construction was completed Wednesday on 32 new reinforced concrete underground support columns to repair the I-495 bridge. Crews are working to erect jacking towers that will be used to lift the bridge deck back into alignment.

State officials initially estimated that the bridge would be partially reopened by Labor Day but now say vehicle traffic could resume a few weeks earlier than expected.

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