Obama unveils new Transportation Department center as the two parties spar over infrastructure


President Obama speaks in front of the Key Bridge to call on Congress to renew the Highway Trust Fund in Washington on July 1.  (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Presssphoto Agency)

President Obama is heading to a section of the Interstate 495 Bridge in Wilmington, Del., Thursday that is closed for repairs to highlight the decrepit state of some of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Obama, who is also announcing the creation of a center within the Transportation Department that will connect state and local officials with private financing for infrastructure projects, has spent the week pressuring lawmakers to provide sufficient funding for the federal Highway Trust Fund. The fund could run short of cash as early as next month.

The House has passed a stop-gap measure that will keep the fund solvent until May; while the Senate has a different short-term measure, it is likely to take up the House version soon.

On Thursday, Obama will sign a presidential memorandum to launch the “Build America Investment Initiative,” which aims to increase infrastructure investment nationwide. In addition to establishing the Build America Transportation Investment Center at DOT, the memo will charge Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew with overseeing a task force to reduce barriers to private investment in areas such as municipal water, ports, harbors, broadband and the electrical grid. The new center will provide technical assistance to both state and local governments seeking to raise funds for infrastructure projects.

None of the proposals for a permanent funding fix is universally popular in the run-up to an election. They include increasing the gas tax and indexing it to inflation, giving tax breaks to U.S. corporations that have billons parked offshore to encourage them to bring those billions back, reforming corporate tax laws, diverting income-tax dollars to transportation, taxing fuel at the refinery rather than at the pump, allowing more tolls on interstates and charging people for every mile they drive.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Foxx said the administration was establishing the center and conducting an inter-agency review because officials "realize we will be more effective if we can increase collaboration across the public and private sectors."

While the administration had been more resistant to private investment in highways and roads in the past,  Foxx said, "The reality is we’re under-investing in infrastructure as a country."

But he also emphasized, "None of the steps we’re taking should be seen as a substitute for adequate public financing, because there isn’t a substitute for that."

While infrastructure remains one of the few topics where lawmakers from both parties appear able to find agreement — the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee overwhelmingly passed a long-term authorization bill in May, for example, and House Republicans and Democrats agreed on the stop-gap funding measure this week — Obama continues to attack congressional Republicans for not developing a long-term solution to the problem.

Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), criticized the president Thursday. “Earlier this week, the House passed an overwhelmingly bipartisan highway bill,” Steel wrote in an e-mail. “The roadblock now is the U.S. Senate, controlled by the President’s own political party. As a leader of that party, he could work to break the Senate gridlock. Instead, he is giving a petulantly irrelevant speech.”

Jeffrey D. Zients, who directs the National Economic Council, told reporters on the conference call that investment in surface transportation has declined as a share of the nation's Gross Domestic Product over the past five decades by 50 percent.

"Clearly if we don’t act, we could lose our competitive edge in infrastructure," Zients  said.

Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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