- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Visiting a bridge construction project in New York state, President Obama blasted congressional Republicans Wednesday for blocking his $302 billion plan to repair the country’s transportation system.

“If they don’t act by the end of the summer, federal funding for transportation projects will run out,” Mr. Obama said of House Republicans. “The cupboard will be bare.”

The visit highlighted the sharpening partisan tone of the infrastructure debate, with Mr. Obama and his GOP opponents both accusing the other of blocking vital national needs.

The president accused Republican lawmakers of hypocrisy, saying “Usually they show up at ribbon cuttings for projects that they refuse to fund.”

“They’re more interested in saying ‘no’ because they’re worried that maybe they’d have to be at a bill signing with me,” said the president, with the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River in the background. “We’ve gotten so partisan, everything is becoming political.”

Republicans counter that it is the president who is stalling on needed infrastructure projects, such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline, that would create thousands of jobs. They also said he wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on projects in the $800 billion-plus 2009 stimulus bill that could have been used for road and bridge repairs.

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“President Obama is a day late and a dollar short on his proposal to meet the infrastructure needs of America,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield, Kentucky Republican and chair of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and power issues. “His stimulus wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on speculative green energy projects while shovel-ready private infrastructure projects were kicked to the sidelines.”

The administration wants to pay for half of the four-year highway bill with revenues from the 18.4-cent fuel tax on every gallon of gas, as well as a tax of 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel fuel. The rest would be paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes.

Congress is more likely to pass a short-term, temporary measure to tide the government over until after the midterm elections in November.

The Tappan Zee Bridge, built in 1955, is being rebuilt at a cost of $3.9 billion. The Obama administration approved a $1.6 billion federal loan for the project and fast-tracked environmental reviews.

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the project “a bridge from gridlock to bipartisanship.”

The president defended the 2009 economic recovery law, saying it paid for “the most important public works projects since the New Deal.” He said it paid for repairs to 20,000 bridges nationwide and 350,000 miles of roads.

But Mr. Obama said more needs to be done to improve America’s transportation infrastructure, including new investments in mass transit. He said one survey has rated the U.S. as 19th in world in the quality of its infrastructure.

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t like America being 19th. I want us to be first,” Mr. Obama said.

The president also announced that he’s taking executive action to speed up approval of permits for public works projects. He said his administration approved environmental permits for the new Tappan Zee Bridge in 18 months, a process that he said would have otherwise taken at least three years.

Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, said executive action to reform the federal permit process is “a step in the right direction,” but added that legislation is needed to increase certainty in the system. He is sponsoring a bill to do just that, he said.

House Republicans said the White House has not supported any legislation that would improve permitting of job-creating infrastructure projects, citing four recent House-passed bills to streamline energy projects that have stalled in the Democratic-led Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chided the president for the long delays in making a decision on the massive Canada-to-Texas Keystone pipeline project, despite pressure even from fellow Democrats to act.

“It’s a real challenge to listen to the president talk about reforming the permitting system when he’s been sitting on the permit for the country’s largest shovel-ready infrastructure program,” the Kentucky Republican said.

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