Obama presses transportation fix

Administration is streamlining the permit process for projects to speed up construction

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TARRYTOWN, N.Y. -- With New York's aging and overburdened Tappan Zee Bridge in the background, President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the United States risks its economic supremacy by neglecting to repair and upgrade its transportation system.

Mr. Obama said his administration is streamlining the permit process for transportation projects to speed up construction, even as the White House and Congress wrangle over how to replenish the Highway Trust Fund.

A modern, efficient transportation system is "one of the reasons that American became an economic superpower in the first place," Mr. Obama said in Tarrytown. While the United States has cut resources for infrastructure, he said, economic competitors such as European nations and China have been investing heavily.

The fast-track approach that Mr. Obama announced would expand the process used for the Tappan Zee. Federal agencies approved plans to replace the 3-mile-long span in 11/2 years, a process that typically takes three to five years, according to a White House statement.

The Highway Trust Fund, fed by fuel taxes, will be unable to keep up with all its bills as soon as July and will be down to $1 billion by the end of September. While Congress is working on a short-term plan to keep it solvent at least through year's end, an interruption in funding would affect more than 112,000 construction projects and jobs for almost 700,000 workers over a year, according to a White House analysis.

While Mr. Obama was in New York, Vice President Joe Biden was delivering a similar message at a rail center in Cleveland. He said the U.S. transportation system is crumbling, and the nation is falling far behind. If the United States cannot provide infrastructure to companies, "we will lose our economic preeminence in the world," Mr. Biden said.

He criticized members of Congress who opposed more spending on infrastructure, saying they "lack vision," and asked, "How can we afford not to make these investments?"

With both the White House and many lawmakers rejecting gasoline and diesel tax increases, Mr. Obama has proposed a four-year, $302 billion plan. About half the funding would come from the federal excise tax on motor fuels, with the rest from revenue obtained by closing tax breaks for corporations, including taxing overseas earnings.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee filed a bipartisan bill that would renew highway and transit programs for six years, while leaving decisions on funding for the measure to the House and Senate's tax committees. The Senate panel was set to begin crafting a bill today.

Companies including Caterpillar Inc., United Parcel Service Inc. and Honeywell International Inc. are pushing for a long-term solution to infrastructure funding. Business groups and labor unions are stepping up their own efforts starting this week. Most of those organizations favor a boost in the gasoline tax to finance a long-term highway bill, even though lawmakers in both chambers say that can't clear Congress in an election year.

The Tappan Zee is one of the nation's 63,522 bridges classified as "structurally deficient," according to the Federal Highway Administration. That means the bridge is safe, though in need of repair, closer monitoring or weight restrictions so it doesn't become unsafe. There are more than 607,000 bridges in the United States. The Tappan Zee is eight years past its designed 50-year lifespan and carries about 40 percent more traffic than intended. A replacement is scheduled for completion in 2018, at a cost of $3.9 billion.

During the past three years, the administration has tried to expedite reviews and permitting for more than 50 projects, including bridges, mass transit, waterways, roads and railways, the White House fact sheet said. More than 30 of the projects have been given permits.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, questioned Mr. Obama's commitment to public works spending and job creation and cited the administration's more-than-five-year deliberation over whether to build an oil pipeline from Canada to Nebraska for eventual delivery to the Gulf Coast.

"An infrastructure for the 21st century is going to require energy, and plenty of it," Mr. Steel said. "So why is the White House blocking the Keystone pipeline and the tens of thousands of American jobs it would create?"

Later Wednesday, Mr. Obama turned his attention to fundraising for the midterm elections, starting with a closed-door session to benefit the Democratic National Committee. Republicans need to win a net six seats to take control of the Senate.

A second fundraiser was being hosted by Blair W. Effron, co-founder of investment bank Centerview Partners LLC, and former private-equity executive Jamie Rubin, son of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Guests were to contribute as much as $32,400, with proceeds going to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Today, the president and first lady will tour the Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum in lower Manhattan before Mr. Obama gives a dedication ceremony speech.

The Washington Post contributed.


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