WASHINGTON — With the weak economy driving voter discontent three weeks out from congressional and state elections, President Barack Obama Monday renewed his call to spend an additional $50 billion on improving the nation's transportation infrastructure.
His plan calls for rebuilding 150,000 miles of roads — "enough to circle the world six times" — laying and maintaining 4,000 miles of railways, restoring 150 miles of airport runways and advancing a new air-traffic control system.
Obama said that America's crumbling infrastructure weakens our economy and leaves the nation trailing foreign competitors in investment, including China, Russia and Europe. By embarking soon on the infrastructure buildup, he said, "we will create good, middle-class jobs right now."
Obama's push comes with the nation's overall unemployment rate stuck at 9.6 percent. Voters are upset about the economy and job losses, but they're also unhappy about federal budget deficits and the skyrocketing national debt. The deficit for fiscal 2010, which ended Sept. 30, was $1.3 trillion, the second highest since World War II, according to an estimate last week from the Congressional Budget Office. The highest came the preceding year, at $1.4 trillion.
Obama said "this plan will be paid for. It will not add to our deficit over time," but that depends upon Congress, which hasn't taken the plan up yet.
Obama spoke upon release of a new report by the Treasury Department and Council of Economic Advisers, which concluded that U.S. infrastructure "is not keeping pace" with economic demand and Americans' expectations, and that now would be a "particularly timely and beneficial" time to spend more.
The report said Obama's plan would create middle class jobs, primarily in construction, manufacturing and retail trade. The report also said for 9 in 10 Americans today, transportation costs eat up nearly 17 cents of every dollar of income.
"Nearly 1 in 5 construction workers is still unemployed and needs a job," Obama said. "And that makes absolutely no sense at a time when there's so much of America that needs rebuilding."
With Congress out until mid-November, then back only briefly, there's no realistic prospect for action on the president's proposal this year.
Some Republicans are openly hostile, saying that Obama's $814 billion stimulus program, which passed last year, was supposed to improve infrastructure and create jobs, but hasn't done enough.
Rep. John Mica of Florida, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called the new report "pitiful." He also said that more than 60 percent of infrastructure funding in the stimulus act has yet to be spent. He said he'd be happy to work with Obama and his advisers "when they return to planet Earth with both feet on the ground."
Obama insisted that America's outdated highway, air and rail systems are taking a toll on the economy in lost productivity.
As a percentage of GDP, Obama said, U.S. investment in infrastructure is less than half of Russia's and a third of Europe's. He said that China will build dozens of new airports in the next decade. He said such investments show that other countries are "creating jobs today, but they're also playing to win tomorrow."
"So there's no reason why we can't do this," Obama said. "This is America. We've always had the best infrastructure."
In Congress, a highway and public transit bill has been stymied largely because of disagreements over how to pay for it. The 18.4 cents a gallon federal tax on gasoline isn't yielding the needed revenue, and some Democrats are pushing for a higher gas tax. The White House has balked at that.
House Democrats want a six-year bill that would cost about $500 billion. Previous authority for highway projects expired about a year ago, but has been funded by a series of short-term extensions that run out on Dec. 31.
(David Lightman contributed to this article.)
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