[As posted by Kathryn Wolfe in Politico]
Most transportation policy-watchers expect President Barack Obama to offer up a comment on infrastructure during his State of the Union speech — just not much of one.
One transportation lobbyist says the president will mention infrastructure “in passing. It seems to be a fairly consistent theme. The big question is always — what is he proposing to do about it?”
During last year’s State of the Union, Obama called for “nation-building here at home” and rebuilding “crumbling roads and bridges” — familiar tropes. He also reached back into the history books to reference great American infrastructure projects: the Hoover Dam, Golden Gate Bridge, and the Interstate highway system. And he announced an effort to clear away red tape associated with some transportation projects.
Even now that the campaign is over, Obama has continued to push transportation investments, both as a means to create jobs and also as a way to boost the country’s competitiveness in the global marketplace.
A pair of speeches Obama gave recently point the way to transportation themes that could be on tap for Tuesday’s speech. The most recent, delivered at a mid-January press conference, was a brief call for a “balanced package” of revenues and spending cuts as part of a debt deal.
Americans “don’t think it’s smart to protect endless corporate loopholes and tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans rather than rebuild our roads and our schools …” Obama said.
And just a few days earlier, Obama’s weekly radio address recited earlier proposals he’s had to use the “peace dividend” from ending military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to pay for more infrastructure spending.
“We will end this war, bring our troops home and continue the work of rebuilding America,” Obama said.
As always, though, questions remain about funding for the infrastructure investment Obama continues to talk about. That’s the Holy Grail for infrastructure boosters, who acknowledge that it’s unlikely to come up in his speech.
Pete Ruane, president and CEO of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said he’s “very confident he’ll talk about the need for more investment. But we need to hope he amplifies.”
It isn’t enough, Ruane said, to make a generic comment in a laundry list of things that the country needs to do.
“[That] is great but it’s really not sufficient to merit anybody taking it seriously,” Ruane said. “We want to see him lead with specific ways in which they’re going to finance it, and that way it’ll engender, I think, a much more serious discussion.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who hasn’t hesitated to criticize Obama’s leadership on infrastructure, said Obama has never made a serious commitment to significant infrastructure investment, and recalled how the administration dragged its feet on a transportation bill when Obama first took office.
“They pulled the plug on our four-year bill and screwed [Former House Transportation Chairman Jim] Oberstar, who they had promised the next thing they would support would be a four-year transportation bill, and they didn’t do it,” DeFazio said.
Americans apparently agree in general, though they also lump Congress in with the president. According to a Pew Research Center’s annual policy priorities survey released in January, just 30 percent of Americans surveyed thought dealing with infrastructure was a “top priority” for the president and Congress in the coming year.
Ed Wytkind, head of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, said the speech probably wouldn’t be a “blockbuster,” considering that “we’re still going to be mired in a discussion about the finances of our government.”
“But what’s clear is the president and his secretary of Transportation have made these issues important elements of their economic agenda. And so, yeah, we would hope that message would continue to ring in this State of the Union speech,” he said.
In any case, Ruane said a funding solution needs to happen soon. He recounted having visited the World Economic Forum recently, where U.S. infrastructure was ranked 23rd of all countries — between Barbados and Portugal.
“We have a new rallying call and say, ‘We’re number 23! We’re number 23!’ It’s pathetic,” Ruane said. “They talk a good game, but the rest of the world is eating our lunch. They don’t want to pay attention to it because, ‘Oh, we might have to raise a user fee or come up with a new user fee.’”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.