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Roads, High-Speed Rail Top Obama Transportation Agenda

Roads, High-Speed Rail Top Obama Transportation Agenda
“We will put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges,” President Barack Obama said. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Barack Obama said he will intensify efforts to repair the nation’s roads, bridges and mass transit systems, calling the work necessary to create jobs and compete with nations that have made those investments.

In his State of the Union address yesterday, Obama said he will look to attract more private capital for big projects. Details on the spending and programs won’t be provided until the budget is released next month, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said before the speech.

The White House said in a summary that the president will unveil a six-year transportation plan in his budget that will include his previously stated idea to create an infrastructure bank to help pay for projects.

“We will put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges,” Obama said. “We will make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment and pick projects based on what’s best for the economy, not politicians.”

Higher spending on highways, bridges and railroads may benefit companies including construction-equipment makers Caterpillar Inc. and Terex Corp., railroad equipment maker Wabtec Corp., and investment advisers Lazard Ltd. and Blackstone Group LP.

Finding the Money

The federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road and transit projects from sales taxes on fuel, is on course to run out of money by 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

House Republicans have ruled out raising the federal gasoline tax, as called for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Obama’s deficit reduction commission.

“The short mention during the speech hints at the challenges we’re going to face as we try to implement our infrastructure policy,” said Robert Puentes, an analyst with the Washington-based Brookings Institute, a nonprofit public-policy organization.

“The biggest challenge, of course, is financial. With the fiscal situation the way it is, without a way to pay for it, these ideas could languish,” Puentes said.

High-Speed Rail

The administration’s transportation plan calls for more investment in high-speed rail.

“Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. This could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car,” Obama said in the speech. “For some trips, it will be faster than flying - without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already under way.”

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, a Florida Republican, said in an interview after the speech that Obama’s high-speed rail target is "a laudable goal, but it doesn’t meet the reality of what the administration has proposed."

Mica has criticized Obama’s high-speed rail spending for not focusing on the corridor between Washington and Boston, where Amtrak’s Acela trains run.

Obama also reiterated a previously stated goal of having 1 million advanced technology vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015. The White House said in its summary that the president in his budget will propose improved consumer rebates for electric vehicle purchases, research and development spending, and programs to encourage communities to invest in electric charging stations.

Congressional Reaction

U.S. drivers bought 274,628 hybrids, electric and fuel-cell vehicles in 2010, according to manufacturers’ sales data compiled by Bloomberg. More than two-thirds of that total was Toyota’s sales of its eight gas-electric hybrid models, including the Prius.

Representative Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat, praised Obama’s call for boosting electric vehicle sales, saying it is "not just imaginary."

“The million is an important goal," Levin said in an interview after the speech. "We’ll be proposing legislation tomorrow to help carry that out."

Mica said he is pleased that Obama is encouraging public-private partnerships and said he wants to work with the president on that.

He noted that Obama, who rebuffed a Democratic proposal last year for a six-year highway and transit bill, didn’t say how many years his plan would cover.

‘‘In order to get people working and start restoring the country’s infrastructure, you’re going to have to make a serious six-year commitment," he said.

‘It’s About Time’

Representative Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, praised Obama’s plan for long-term surface transportation funding, including its focus on public-private partnerships.

‘‘It’s about time,” Rahall said in an interview before the president spoke. “If we want to rebuild our nation instead of rebuilding others, I’m all for it.”

Rahall said he also supports Obama’s call for more high-speed passenger rail spending as long as Amtrak, the U.S. long-distance passenger railroad, doesn’t get left behind.

Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, said he was disappointed that Obama didn’t provide funding specifics.

"We got a nod," DeFazio said in an interview. "We need a lot more than a nod. We need the investment to rebuild."

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, said in an e-mailed statement about Obama’s infrastructure remarks that “working people are ready to work with him and hold him to his promises.”

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