Obama calls for ‘fundamental overhaul’ to U.S. infrastructure

President Obama on Monday called for a “fundamental overhaul” to the nation’s infrastructure that involves a $50 billion investment in roads, bridges, railways and electric grids he says are “woefully” inadequate. 

The president’s comments came after a meeting with Cabinet officials, governors and mayors where officials discussed a new government report on infrastructure that argues a significant improvement effort could help create jobs and boost economic output.

Obama proposed a six-year plan that would rebuild and modernize hundreds of thousands of miles of roads, bridges and rail lines as well as overhauling the way the government funds infrastructure projects.  

“Our infrastructure is woefully inefficient and it is outdated,” said Obama, who was flanked by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other officials. “For years, we have deferred tough decisions, and today our aging system of highways and byways, air routes and rail lines hinder our economic growth.

“It should not take another collapsing bridge or failing levee to shock us into action,” he added. “The bill is due.”

Infrastructure spending made up the core of the 2009 economic stimulus bill, but the economic recovery has slowed in recent months and unemployment is still floating near 10 percent. 

Republicans have attacked the stimulus on the campaign trail, arguing it added to the nation’s record debt without preventing a jump in the jobless rate. Getting Congress to approve more infrastructure spending will be difficult, particularly since Republicans appear poised to make significant gains in the midterm election.

Obama defended the stimulus in his remarks on Friday, stating that it included the largest infrastructure investment in more than a generation. But he said new spending shouldl focus on longer-term projects that will also help create jobs in the short-term. 

“By making these investments across the country, we won’t just make
our economy run better over the long haul — we’ll create good,
middle-class jobs right now,” he said.

The plan would rebuild 150,000 miles of roads, would “lay and maintain”
4,000 miles of railways and would “restore” 150 miles of runways. It would also “advance” a new state-of-the-art air traffic control system that would reduce delays. Obama also called for the creation of a national high-speed rail network and a modernized electric grid focused on clean energy.

The plan would also steer infrastructure spending away from the congressional earmark process and would create a federal “infrastructure bank” to leverage funds for projects.

“We’ve got to focus less on wasteful earmarks, outdated formulas,” he said. “We’ve got to focus more on competition and innovation; less on short-sighted political priorities and more on our national economic priorities.”

Obama emphasized that the project would not raise the federal budget deficit, which has ballooned during the Bush and Obama administrations. The nation’s growing deficit and debt has been a top issue on the campaign trail, and the president’s fiscal commission is slated to deliver its recommendations for bringing down those figures in December, which could include tax increases, spending cuts or changes to entitlement programs.

The president did not specify specific spending cuts or tax increases that would be made to fund the project.

“This plan will be fully paid for and will not add to our deficit over
time. We will work with Congress to make sure of that,” he said.

Obama, whose transportation secretary is a former GOP congressman, expressed hope that Republicans and Democrats would both back the plan.

He mentioned that Sam Skinner, former transportation secretary to President George H.W. Bush, and Norm Minetta, a Democrat who served Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, joined him for the meeting because “they are passionate about this task.”

“Their cooperation and, indeed, this country’s very history proves that this is something for which there has traditionally been broad bipartisan support,” Obama said.

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