Obama calls for more spending on transportation infrastructure

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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday visited a revived Midwest train station to extol the benefits of federal spending on light rail, roads and bridges, as he offered cautious praise for a Republican tax reform effort that could help foot the bill for major infrastructure investments.

At the freshly renovated Union Depot, Mr. Obama outlined his proposed four-year, $302 billion transportation plan that would be funded in part by closing loopholes and tax breaks for corporations. The president touted infrastructure spending as a fast job creator and a key to expanding the economy.

"Other countries are not waiting to rebuild their infrastructure. They're trying to out-build us today, so they can out-compete us tomorrow," Mr. Obama told the crowd about 1,300 people. "They know that if they have the fastest trains on the planet or the highest-rated airports or the busiest, most efficient ports, that businesses will go there. ... We want them to come here to the United States of America. And that means the best airports and the best roads and the best trains should be right here in America."

If Congress doesn't renew infrastructure programs by fall, the president warned, more than 700,000 jobs will be at risk. The Highway Trust Fund, funded by gasoline taxes, is projected to run out of money at the end of August, and the transportation law authorizing programs expires soon after.

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who traveled with the president, dubbed the deadlines the "transportation cliff." Mr. Obama warned that if money for projects dries up, "we could see construction projects stopped in their tracks, machines sitting idle, workers off the jobs."

Despite those risks, it will be difficult to pass major transportation legislation through a divided Congress, which has generally been averse to costly and complicated bills. After the last major transportation law expired in 2009, deficit-focused lawmakers passed a series of one-year extensions until July 2012, when they agreed to a two-year plan for highways, public transit, bridges and other transportation projects. Meanwhile, the money flowing to the highway fund has dwindled as Americans drive more fuel-efficient vehicles and the tax, 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn't been raised in 20 years.

Mr. Obama's four-year proposal would depend on not one, but two major pieces of legislation passing this year -- because it would be funded in part by revenue generated by the still-theoretical overhaul of the business tax code. The president's proposal would inject $150 billion in one-time spending into projects aimed at tackling what he calls the nation's infrastructure "crisis."

Mr. Obama has long called for more infrastructure spending to spark job creation, with mixed success. Congress has repeatedly rejected his plan to create a federal infrastructure bank that could leverage private investment in projects.

Barry Schoch, secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation, said in a statement, "In November, Gov. [Tom] Corbett and the Legislature addressed Pennsylvania's decades-old infrastructure investment backlog and enacted Act 89. Now, it's time for the same leadership and action at the federal level. We welcome the president's support for a new four-year transportation authorization bill, and we urge that the president and Congress work together in the true spirit of bipartisanship like we did in Pennsylvania."

Post-Gazette staff writer Jon Schmitz contributed.

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