President Obama on Wednesday demanded that Congress quickly approve a clean extension of surface-transportation funding, warning that up to a million jobs are at stake and calling it “inexcusable” that “political gamesmanship” is threatening both jobs and the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
The president issued his demand at a Rose Garden event, flanked by workers whose jobs could be lost if funding is not approved by the end of September. Also with the president were Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Chief Operating Officer David Chavern.
Obama said he wants to avoid a repeat of the impasse over the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this month when Democrats and Republicans could not agree on provisions dealing with rural air service and unionization. Noting that Congress finally extended FAA funding only until Sept. 16, he added, “That's why when they come back next month, not only do they need to pass the transportation bill but they have also to place a clean extension of FAA bill for longer this time and address back pay for workers laid off during the last shutdown.”
Republicans soon fired back, accusing Obama of “scare tactics” for suggesting the highway bill would be allowed to expire. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Republicans “have proposed a long-term reauthorization that reduces bureaucracy, focuses on legitimate federal transportation priorities, and meets a basic principle of spending only what we take in.”
The president said expiration of the transportation bill will immediately put 4,000 workers off the job and a longer delay would claim almost a million jobs. And, he said, if renewal is delayed 10 days, nearly $1 billion in highway funding will be lost. The 18.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax, which is part of the surface-transportation funding mechanism, expires on Sept. 30. The influx of cash from the gas tax funds maintenance of roads, bridges, rail, and runways.
The president also called for a reform of “the way transportation money is invested to eliminate waste, to give states more control over the projects right for them, and give better results for money spent.” He added: “We need to stop funding projects based on whose districts they're in and funding them based on how much good they are doing for the American people.”
Additionally, he announced that he has directed “certain federal agencies to identify high-priority infrastructure projects that can put people back to work.” These are projects, he said, “that are already funded, and with some focused attention we could expedite the permitting decisions and reviews necessary to get construction under way more quickly while still protecting safety, public health, and the environment.”
And Obama renewed his call for Congress to approve more funding on infrastructure, lamenting the U.S. slippage in spending compared to other countries. “We shouldn’t be playing patch-up or catch-up,” he said, promising “a serious conversation” with Congress about infrastructure spending.
Hoping to bolster the president’s cause, the White House released a letter dated Wednesday from the United States Conference of Mayors urging Congress to send a clean extension of the surface transportation program to Obama for his immediate signature by Sept. 30.
“The clock is ticking. If such an extension is not signed by the president before September 30, the entire program will be suspended – as was the case recently with the [FAA] bill – threatening the loss of 1.8 million jobs and doing irreparable harm to our already crumbling infrastructure,” warns the letter.
Addressed to top Republicans and Democrats on key Senate and House committees dealing with transportation, and taxes and finance, the letter bears the names of the conference president, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and 128 other mayors.
Billy House contributed