Obama plan part stimulus, part highway bill

| 9/7/2010

President Obama’s $50 billion plan for infrastructure is being presented as part stimulus and part highway authorization bill. It is also being viewed as an attempt to unite Democrats heading into the fall elections as Republicans stand by to attack any proposal that involves spending.

Obama laid out his six-year proposal on Monday, Sept. 6, during a Labor Day visit to Milwaukee, WI, where he was joined by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The president touted the plan as part follow-up to investments made under the nearly $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and as part multiyear surface transportation authorization bill, also called a highway bill.

The previous highway bill, known as SAFETEA-LU, expired in September 2009. Since then, Congress and the White House have been subsisting on a series of short-term spending bills to keep transportation and other programs afloat.

Under the Obama plan, highway users would get 150,000 miles of roadways rebuilt, while there is little talk of expanding capacity.

Meanwhile, the president is calling for 4,000 miles of railway infrastructure and 150 miles of airport runways to be constructed as part of his proposal. Obama would also like to see a national infrastructure bank created to fund large-scale projects, which may or may not stay with highways.

Obama’s announcement comes just six weeks before the November elections, something that is not going unnoticed.

“I think it’s readily acknowledged that this is election-year politics. His speech was very campaign oriented, and he knows that infrastructure is popular,” said OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Mike Joyce.

“We support efforts and policies that will help improve and expand our infrastructure; however, we have some concerns with the proposal.”

Among concerns is the timing – right before midterm elections – along with ways to offset the costs of the bill, namely closing loopholes on oil and gas companies to capture more revenue.

“In order to pay for this, they’re demonizing the oil and gas companies. We realize that, but we also realize that any cost increase for doing business for those companies hurts the bottom line of truckers,” says Joyce.

“Another concern we have is in the details of the infrastructure bank. There’s a potential that there would be a further use of tolling and public-private partnerships,” he says.

“There’s a level of concern that this moves us away from the ideal concept that was envisioned for a user-pay highway system. This could lead to an increase of the price of fuel indirectly without more money going to the Highway Trust Fund.”

Joyce also said the Obama plan continues to emphasize livable communities, reducing oil consumption, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions – all with the voter in mind.

Good news is the proposal aims to streamline federal programs.

“We might differ in the path to get to the final destination, but we do support efforts that would streamline some programs and make projects live up to national significance versus the explosion of earmarks,” Joyce said.

“The bottom line is this should have been done already. There should have been a highway bill in place already.”

Obama’s proposal would need to be drafted into a bill and receive congressional approval before it could be enacted. With midterm elections around the corner, that could be a tough sell, even with U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on board with a statement of endorsement.

The ranking Republican on the T&I Committee, Rep. John Mica of Florida, issued a statement opposing the “tax and spend” proposal while other federal money sits idle.

– By David Tanner, associate editor