In a State of the Union address that laid out a wide array of domestic initiatives and foreign-policy strategies for the start of his second term, President Obama— to the delight of many in the transportation sector— specifically mentioned what he hoped to do with Congress in a bipartisan fashion to repair the nation’s crumbling highway infrastructure and to promote the use of alternative fuels for both cars and trucks.
“Ask any CEO,” said the President, “where they’d rather locate and hire—[in] a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and Internet; high-tech schools, [and] self-healing power grids?... tonight, I propose a ‘Fix-It-First’ program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country. And to make sure taxpayers don’t shoulder the whole burden, I’m also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: [modern infrastructure]…”
“Tonight, the President articulated a boldeconomic agendafor addressing important national priorities,” said Patrick Jones, CEO & executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Assn. “These will serve America for generations to come.
“An effective, national highway network is a cornerstone of any strategy that depends on quick, reliable transportation of people and goods,” he continued, “Yet our nation continues to confront a mounting crisis in transportation and infrastructure. By clearing the financial strain and physical congestion on our roads, the President and Congress can generate direct economic activity, while removing one of the biggest barriers to a sustained economic recovery.
“In a challenging fiscal environment, now is the time to explore the full toolbox of options for addressing the transportation funding crisis,” he continued, declaring that “tolling is undoubtedly a part of that toolbox” as it generates “needed revenue to support highway construction and maintenance, while easing the financial burden on federal and state governments.”
Bud Wright, executive director of the American Assn. of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), sounded a cautionary note after the speech: “AASHTO salutes President Obama for again calling for greater investment in America’s infrastructure. Now we need to work together to tackle the most pressing issue facing our transportation system – how are we going to pay for it.
“We look forward to working closely with the Administration and members of Congress on legislation that will shore up the Highway Trust Fund with a long-term, sustainable source of funding to pay for the nation’s highway and transit programs,” he continued. “Funding transportation creates jobs, promotes continued economic growth, and gives state transportation agencies the resources necessary to maintain and modernize the transportation systems future generations will depend on.”
“Largely a retread” was the take on the speech’s transportation offerings by the Politico.com “Morning Transportation” team of bloggers: “There were a few new wrinkles-- $40 billion of that $50 billion ‘Fix it First’ initiative would be "targeted to the most urgent upgrades, like the 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country," according to a White House blueprint. And the President also called for greater private sector investment with a proposal for a ‘Partnership to Rebuild America’ that would bring in more private sector dollars ‘to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods.’”
Indeed, two Republican members of Congress holding transportation committee assignments were also quick to characterize the President’s infrastructure proposals as rehashed and they were pessimistic about how those initiatives will be funded. And one Democratic committee member had hoped much more would have been proposed.
"He didn't say anything,” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee told Politico.com. “We've heard some of this stuff before; how's he going to pay for it?”
"It certainly is encouraging to hear him talk about building things across the nation,” Rep Jeff Denham (R-CA) remarked to Politico.com. “The real question is at what cost and where does the money come from?”
“Fifty billion dollars is about one-tenth of what we need for a new emphasis on rebuilding our 20th century infrastructure and building out a world-class 21st century infrastructure,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, conceded to Politico.com.
Regardingvehicles, the President stated that: “I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and our water.
“In fact, he continued, “much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together. So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.”
“This [Energy Security Trust] would be a welcomed step,” said Richard Kolodziej, president of advocacy for the natural-gas vehicle group NGVAmerica. “Through more research and development, natural gas vehicles will get even more efficient, more cost-effective and cleaner.
“However,” he continued, “we don’t have to wait for the results of new research and new technology. Efficient, cost-effective and clean natural-gas vehicles are available today. American-made vehicles, using natural gas produced right here, already are displacing significant volumes of foreign oil. The use of natural gas vehicles in light-duty, medium-duty and heavy-duty applications is rapidly growing today.”
Kolodziej pointed out that NGVAmerica has been “encouraged” by the President’s past statements in support of natural gas vehicles. “With supportive government policies, natural gas vehicle use could grow even faster— accelerating the reduction in our dependence on foreign oil, which would help keep more money and jobs, currently sent out of the country, right here at home,” he added.
Click on ‘Handle’ to follow David Cullen on Twitter: