Obama: Delay in passing highway bill could cost jobs

President Obama on Wednesday pressured Congress to pass both a surface transportation bill and funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, saying that inaction would "put more jobs at risk in an industry that's already one of the hardest hit in the last decade."

Flanked by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Chamber of Commerce Chief Operating Officer David Chavern in the Rose Garden, Obama framed the highway bill as an issue that affects thousands of people who drive.

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He argued that jobs would be lost at a time when most of the talk in Washington is about creating them if Congress did not pass a short-term extension of the bill that, among other things, allows the federal gas tax to be collected and appropriates money from it to road projects in states.

"If we allow the transportation bill to expire, over 4,000 workers will be furloughed without pay," Obama said. "If it's delayed for merely 10 days, we will lose almost $1 billion in highway funds. That's money we can never get back.

"That's just not acceptable," he continued. "It's inexcusable to put more jobs at risk in an industry that's already one of the hardest hit in the last decade."

Obama tied the highway bill to a separate measure that funds the FAA, which was at the center of a political firestorm earlier this month that saw the agency partially shut down for nearly two weeks. About 4,000 FAA workers were furloughed during the impasse over the agency's funding, and the bill that was approved to end it only funded the FAA through the Congress recess.

"A lot of people in Washington are talking about creating jobs — it's time to stop the political games that can actually cost people jobs," Obama said.

The president has said he will unveil a job-creation proposal when Congress returns aimed at lowering the high national unemployment rate, which remains above 9 percent.

He hinted that transportation spending would be a part of those proposals, saying that when Congress comes back, "we're going to have to have a serious conversation in this country about making real investments in our infrastructure.
 
"We need to reform the way transportation money is invested," he said. "We need to stop funding projects based on whose district they're in and instead fund them based on how much good they're going to do. No more bridges to nowhere." 

Transportation advocates praised Obama for placing the presidential spotlight on the gas tax issue.

“AAA appreciates President Obama's leadership and ongoing efforts to focus attention on the importance of transportation to the U.S. economy," AAA Vice President of Public Affairs Kathleen Marvaso said in a statement. "In order to keep the American economy, and the American people, moving in the near term, Congress must pass a short-term highway and transit program extension by September 30, 2011. Without this necessary revenue stream, the ability of states and localities to complete their approved transportation safety and construction improvement plans would be severely compromised."

However, with jobs widely expected to be at the forefront of the political conversation when lawmakers come back to Washington, Obama wrapped his transportation sales pitch in employment terms Thursday.

"There's work to be done, there's workers here to do it, and that's why I expect Congress to act," he said.