President Barack Obama spotlighted his proposals to create jobs through spurring private spending on highways, airports and bridges, telling voters at a Miami port that the U.S. can’t wait to upgrade its essential infrastructure.
“What are we waiting for? There’s work to be done. There are workers who are ready to do it,” Obama said yesterday, surrounded by shipping containers and construction cranes. “Let’s get started rebuilding America.”
Since his re-election last November, Obama has widened his focus beyond economic issues to wage high-profile campaigns for gun control and immigration legislation. Yet, the economy remains the top concern in many states, including in the politically divided one of Florida, which has housing foreclosure rates three times above the national average.
Obama’s two-hour stop in Miami aimed to remind Americans that the economy remains his priority, even as he pushes forward with a more expansive second-term agenda.
“There are few more important things we can do to create jobs right now and strengthen our economy over the long-haul then rebuilding the infrastructure that powers our businesses,” Obama said.
Florida’s unemployment rate is 7.7 percent, the same as the national figure for February.
Greater infrastructure investment has been central to Obama’s economic agenda, starting with programs in the economic stimulus package that passed weeks after his first term began in 2009. His latest proposals face steep opposition on Capitol Hill, where Republican lawmakers vow to block new spending unless it is offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.
In Miami, Obama renewed his call for a $10 billion national infrastructure bank, an idea he unveiled in his first term that’s been blocked by congressional Republicans. He’s also proposing $4 billion in new spending on programs that award transportation grants, and exempting foreign investors from taxes when selling infrastructure or real estate assets -- a plan designed to promote investment in such projects. The benefit is currently granted to U.S. pension funds.
The president released more details of a new debt program, called America Fast Forward Bonds, which aims to boost state and local government spending on public works by granting issuers a 28 percent federal subsidy.
Those plans, he said, would help finance projects faster, cheaper, and give local officials more flexibility.
Alan Krueger, the president’s chief economist, told reporters on Air Force One that Obama’s proposals wouldn’t add to the deficit, though he didn’t specify how the $21 billion in costs would be covered. Those details, he said, would be part of the president’s budget, scheduled to be released on April 10.
Investment planned through 2020 on U.S. infrastructure, including roads, schools and airports, will fall $1.6 trillion short of what’s needed to maintain existing facilities, according to a March 19 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers. U.S. drinking water and sewage infrastructure earned a barely passing grade of D from the group, which said at least $1 trillion in improvements are needed.
Administration officials say that increased infrastructure spending will make the U.S. more economically competitive internationally and boost the domestic construction industry, which is still recovering from the economic downturn.
“We have a tremendous need, and I think a bipartisan need, for more infrastructure,” Krueger said.
‘Fix It First’
Promoting private sector infrastructure investment was a key part of the economic plans Obama unveiled in his State of the Union address last month. The president proposed $50 billion in infrastructure spending, including a “Fix It First” program that would identify projects needing the most urgent upgrades. His push is meant to lure additional private capital to help repair aging public works projects.
“This should not be partisan idea,” said Obama yesterday. “I know that members of Congress are happy to welcome projects like this to their district. I know because I’ve seen them at the ribbon cuttings.”
The administration’s focus on private investment underscores the difficulty his government spending proposals confront in approval from Republican lawmakers who control the U.S. House.
Before Obama arrived in Miami, Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, dismissed the president as “late to the party” on infrastructure investment. The state spent $77 million to fund the Miami port’s $180-million “deep dredge” project, which will allow Miami to accommodate larger cargo ships and create more than 30,000 new jobs. Scott called on Obama to reimburse the state.
“We could not wait for the federal government to come to the table with their share of the project,” Scott said on a March 28 conference call with reporters.
White House officials said that the federal government funded a $340 million loan to assist with financing a tunnel project at the port, and awarded a $23 million grant to restore freight rail service.
“There’s no reason this should be a Democratic tunnel or a Republican tunnel,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters yesterday. “These are projects that are helpful to the economy and shouldn’t break down on partisan lines.”
According to a fact sheet that accompanied the president’s State of the Union address on Feb. 12, since he took office more than 300,000 miles of U.S. roads have been improved; more than 22,000 bridges have been repaired or replaced; and more than 6,000 miles of rail have been built or improved.
Foreclosure rates in Florida in February were 1 in every 282 housing units, compared to 1 in every 849 nationally, according to RealtyTrac, an Irvine, California-based data provider.