Business, labor listening for the president's plan on infrastructure

Groups from across the political spectrum are hoping President Obama will renew his vow to increase investment in the nation’s infrastructure during Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

An infrastructure plan could provide a rare opportunity for the president to make strides with both the business community and labor unions — traditional foes that both say infrastructure improvements should be an urgent priority.

“There are a lot of issues that are very divisive now,” said Matt Jeanneret, spokesman for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. “This isn’t one of them.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Tuesday’s State of the Union, dubbed by the White House as a plan for “Winning the Future,” will reportedly include infrastructure upgrades as one of several key areas needed for the U.S. to be competitive and recover from the recession.

“What we’re looking for is a sustained and substantial plan to invest in infrastructure,” said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor coalition.

John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said his group is “hopeful” that Obama will stress the “importance of infrastructure investment” during his address to the nation.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says improvements to the nation’s foundational grid are a key component of creating jobs and driving the economic recovery.

Tom Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called for a “strong, consistent and reliable federal commitment to infrastructure” during a closely watched address on Jan. 11.

A little more than a week after Donohue’s speech, labor’s leading voice echoed the call for the government to create a “21st-century infrastructure.”

“We need to invest trillions more to build the 21st-century infrastructure necessary for our nation’s and our planet’s future — high-speed mass transit, smart utilities and universal high-speed broadband,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.

Transportation groups want the president to follow up on his October call for a $50 billion infrastructure fund by calling on Congress to pass a long-term transportation bill that can fund a nationwide overhaul.

“We think that’s what’s needed to help move the ball forward in passing the long-term bill,” said Jeanneret. “It’s refreshing to see presidential leadership on this issue, and we think it’s long overdue.”

The highway and transit reauthorization law, dubbed SAFETEA-LU, expired on Sept. 30, 2009. Typically a multiyear law, it instead has been extended temporarily several times since its expiration.

Any promise from the administration, however, will still require an agreeable Congress. With Republicans leading the House focused on cutting spending, the case for increased infrastructure dollars could fall on deaf ears.

“There’s a lot of concern about that,” said Lee of the AFL-CIO. “In the current political climate, there’s a lot of what I’d call deficit hysteria that could ... undermine any plans for substantial infrastructure investment.”

“The House and Senate are going to have to figure out what the long-term bill should look like,” Horsley said. “There is interest in the broader House in cutting spending across the board. The downside to that is that that might well eliminate jobs when their broader objective is to create jobs.”

On Sunday talk shows preceding the president’s speech, GOP leaders said the public did not want more government spending.

“What the people have said is, ‘Enough: We’ve got to shrink government and cut spending,’ ” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Justin Harclerode, spokesman for House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), said the chairman would be listening Tuesday night for “feasible, fiscally responsible” infrastructure proposals.

“He will be paying close attention to what the president says,” Harclerode said.