(Todd Zwillich, Washington, D.C.) President Obama renewed his pitch for a transportation infrastructure overhaul on Monday, touting new spending as a way to create jobs.
Obama framed crumbling infrastructure as an election year issue, contrasting traditionally bipartisan support for transportation projects against the current polarized political climate.
"Our infrastructure is woefully inefficient and it is outdated," the president said in a statement in front of reporters in the White House Rose Garden. "This is a season for choices, and this is the choice." he said. (Video and transcript of his speech here.)
Obama reiterated his proposal to spend $50 billion to rebuild highways, railways, and airport infrastructure. The plan, originally unveiled on Labor Day, seeks to rebuild some 150,000 miles of highways and 4,000 miles of railroads. Airport runway expansions and updates to obsolete air traffic control systems are also included.
The spending would be in addition to the Recovery Act stimulus package, which, for lawmakers who voted for it, has become a political liability in the midterm elections. To counter those concerns the White House released a report along with the Treasury Department warning that the nation loses $80 billion annually in hampered productivity because of crumbling roads and bridges, traffic delays and closures.
"We're already paying for our failure to act," the president said.
In an effort to underscore the traditional bipartisan support for infrastructure projects, Obama appeared in the Rose Garden with former Secretaries of Transportation from both Democratic and Republican administrations. Ray LaHood, the current Transportation Secretary, said the administration plans to push Congress to act on the $50 billion proposal during the Lame Duck congressional session after the elections, then pursue a broader, 6-year highways bill in 2011.
That highway bill has been stalled as lawmakers hunt for a way to pay for new projects. The bill is currently at least $150 billion short in funding, and lawmakers are hesitant to tack the new spending onto the national debt, according to congressional aides. House members are waiting for the Senate to introduce a broader highway bill, though senators are having difficulty deciding on how to pay for the package.
One option is to increase the federal gas tax, which is traditionally used to fund highway projects. Most lawmakers have refused to consider a gas tax increase, both because of its political peril and also for fear of hampering businesses and households during bad economic times.
"I'm not going to stand here and list all the options. There are a lot of things being discussed," LaHood said when asked by reporters how the administration will want to pay for new highway projects. Asked by a reporter whether a gas tax increase is off the table, LaHood said, "I think you know the answer to that."