Next for Obama: Focus on Infrastructure

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show,'s Senior Politics reporter Ben Smith, and director of America 2050 Petra Todorovich discuss the the transportation bills the president is urging Congress to pass, their impact on the NYC area, and a new initiative to develop an infrastructure and growth strategy for the United States.

President Obama will not be giving his jobs speech at the same time as the Republican presidential debate, but will instead compete with the opening night of NFL football.

Yesterday the president gave a speech about transportation infrastructure, calling on Congress not to play politics with people’s livelihoods. Yet media coverage focused more on the scheduling snafu than on yesterday’s message, and lost in the hubbub was information about some new transportation bills that could have major repercussions for the New York area. 

The president sited the United States decline in infrastructure in his speech, saying the nation “should not just be playing catch-up or patch-up, we should be leading the world.” President Obama said interest rates are low and construction workers are unemployed, creating a perfect opportunity for infrastructure investment.

Petra Todorovich is with the Regional Planning Association. She thinks the resident really didn’t break any new ground with his talk.

This is the president saying to Congress, c’mon guys, get your act together. Don’t do what you did on the debt ceiling with the transportation bill.

The president referred to two versions of the bill—one from the House, one from the Senate. Todorovich says the two are not equal

The House-proposed bill would cost about $230 billion over six years. It takes existing revenue coming into the transportation trust fund and sends it back out to the states.

It’s really a very drastic cut from what President Obama had originally proposed, which was a bill [of] about $550 billion dollars over six years. And it’s a thirty percent cut annually over what the federal government currently spends on transportation funding.

The Senate bill is a two-year bill that would cost about $109 billion. Todorovich said that spending the same amount over two years still leaves the same problems, and the issue would just rise again in two years. The impact to the New York region, however, would be much less, as funding levels would at least stay about the same.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign did an analysis of what a thirty percent cut might mean to New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. They found that 18,000 jobs would be lost in New Jersey as a result of the cuts. In New York the cut would be larger, $7.2 billion over six years, or 45,000 jobs in the first year alone. In Connecticut the estimated loss would be nine thousand jobs.

A lot of projects that we’ve been hoping for, that keep the subway system and the commuter rail in good repair, would be canceled or delayed.

Ben Smith said the president—who gave a jobs address yesterday and will give a jobs address next week—is being redundant to drive across the message.

He wants to talk about jobs whenever he is talking about anything. He wants to be a jobs president… I think he’s trying to set the stage for what he hopes will be a very big, very high-impact speech.

Smith said part of what the president was doing was trying to head off any replay of the debt ceiling showdown.

The Highway Trust Fund renewal is one of those things where a month ago when we were calling both White House officials and people on the hill they said of course it will get renewed, it always gets renewed. And it’s just another mark of how things that used to be routine are always now on the verge of total crisis and meltdown.

The federal gas tax is also set to expire at the end of September. It costs 18.4 cents per gallon—a flat amount that has not changed in many years. The tax has not kept up with inflation, and as people use more gas efficient cars and therefore less gas, it has declined further as a source of revenue. Todorovich said the routine thing that Congress does is to renew it.

To let it lapse would be disaster. There would be no money for anybody’s highway departments across the country. But given the political brinkmanship that’s been going on in Congress these day, they could possibly consider not renewing the gas tax, and that would be chaos.

Todorovich has concerns that the tax might be used as a bargaining chip.

That’s the kind of politics we’re seeing play out right now, which is so unfortunate because these are fundamental issues that underpin our economy and we just need to maintain our infrastructure in a state of good repair at a bare minimum.

Smith said the scheduling snafu might have just been a simple accident.

Honestly, in politics it’s hard to overestimate how incompetent people are… you can't totally write off the possibility in politics that people were just bumbling, because often, people are, and it gets attributed to some kind of devious intention. On the other hand it sort of looks like they were trying to upstage the republicans, to contrast this president looking for solutions, with this seven dwarves screaming at each other about far-out policy solutions.

House Speaker Boehner is said to have privately agreed to the original scheduling of the speech, but publicly he objected when other Republicans were angered by the timing.  Smith said Boehner likely didn’t agree, but also didn’t object.  

I think Boehner will likely look to a lot of people like a partisan jerk who will do anything to do the president harm, but Boehner’s not running nationally next year, the House Republicans aren’t running nationally next year, and frankly they do want to stop the president at every front.

Smith isn’t sure why the Republicans didn’t simply shift their debate an hour later and spend that time finding fault with his statements, but he thinks it might signal a difference between Congressional Republicans and Republican candidates for president.

I think the Congressional Republicans want to be the ones on television responding to Barack Obama. They don’t want these presidential candidates to be the ones stealing the show. So I think the Republican party is not a united force.