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Obama Includes Infra Bank in His Jobs Push; Mica Rejects It Out of Hand

Last night, President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress to present his new jobs plan, a bill he’s calling the American Jobs Act. He relied on the well-worn appeal to people’s patriotic competitiveness by pointing out that China is improving its infrastructure while the U.S. is sitting idly by. Without mentioning the dollar figure (psst… it’s $50 billion) he said he’d get construction workers back on the job rebuilding transportation infrastructure and schools:

And to make sure the money is properly spent, we’re building on reforms we’ve already put in place. No more earmarks. No more boondoggles. No more Bridges to Nowhere. We’re cutting the red tape that prevents some of these projects from getting started as quickly as possible. And we’ll set up an independent fund to attract private dollars and issue loans based on two criteria: how badly a construction project is needed and how much good it will do for the economy.

And without ever saying the words “infrastructure bank,” he made his push for one:

This idea came from a bill written by a Texas Republican [Kay Bailey Hutchison] and a Massachusetts Democrat [John Kerry]. The idea for a big boost in construction is supported by America’s largest business organization and America’s largest labor organization. It’s the kind of proposal that’s been supported in the past by Democrats and Republicans alike. You should pass it right away.

He would capitalize the bank with an initial $10 billion, just as Sens. Kerry and Hutchison had proposed. Obama’s own earlier proposal called for a $30 billion investment.

Obama’s written plan also pledges investments in TIGER and TIFIA – good news, since the 2012 transportation budget passed by a House subcommittee yesterday zeroed out TIGER entirely. It also builds on his instruction to agency heads to identify projects that deserve federal help – if not funds – for streamlining the process.

Transportation reform advocates praised the bill, with James Corless of Transportation for America calling it “both ambitious and pragmatic.”

House Transportation Committee ranking Democrat Nick Rahall sat next to Chair John Mica during the speech, and afterward, Rahall said, “We may have walked out of the chamber with different views on the President’s proposals, but I remain committed to working together in a bipartisan fashion.”

We’ll see if they can find anything they both agree to work on. The statement Mica issued after the speech was a quick repudiation of everything the president had asked for:

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Republicans Line Up to Oppose Obama’s Transportation Proposal

The critical multi-year transportation bill, which lawmakers have sidelined since last summer as they’ve quarreled about how to pay for it, looks to be back on the agenda after President Obama’s pugnacious Labor Day speech, in which he called on Congress to ramp up investment in transportation. The broad outline of Obama’s plan calls for rebuilding 150,000 miles of roads, constructing 4,000 miles of rail, and rehabilitating 150 miles of runway over the next six years.

Florida GOP representative John Mica

Florida GOP representative John Mica supported a long-term transportation bill in 2009, but quickly came out against the President's infrastructure plan this week. Photo: PBS/Blueprint America

While that may look like a lot of road spending compared to rail, transportation reformers see cause for optimism in the use of the word “rebuild” — which implies that the emphasis will be on fixing existing roads instead of constructing sprawl-inducing new highways. The outline also calls for “significant new funding” for the creation of new transit projects, and for ramping up investment in “safety, environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness, and livability.” Those criteria have all been hallmarks of the US DOT’s TIGER program, which distributes competitive grants to local transportation agencies from what has been a relatively small pot of money.

Congress typically authorizes a major transportation spending bill every six years, but political gridlock over the raising the gas tax or securing other funding streams has stalled the reauthorization of the bill since it expired in 2009. In the interim, lawmakers have passed a series of stopgap spending measures to keep the transportation system functioning, even as Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has lobbied hard for Congress to take up the full bill.

Monday’s proposal represents the first serious effort from the President to tackle America’s transportation policy inertia, which is preventing any significant progress from the highway-oriented status quo. Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, are undoubtedly eager to pass a bill that will show voters they’re doing as much as possible to address high levels of unemployment, which are making a Republican rout of the mid-term elections look increasingly likely.

Predictably, the GOP does not look willing to lend a hand. Republicans have already lined up against Obama’s proposal, and another protracted and nasty fight over a major White House initiative looks likely. Immediately after the announcement, House Minority Leader John Boehner released a statement opposing the plan, and on Tuesday he released another one calling the plan an “exercise in futility.”

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House Set to Pass Jobs Bill With Changes, Prompting Another Senate Vote

The House has just begun voting on the Senate jobs bill, which includes a $20 billion reprieve for the nation’s highway trust fund and an highway expansion of Build America Bonds — but though the legislation is expected to pass, it won’t be headed to the president’s desk yet.

Peter_DeFazio_2.jpgRep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR) (Photo: UPI)

Bowing to concerns from two blocs of Democrats, House leaders made two minor changes to the jobs bill. The first modification assuages fiscal hawks by fully offsetting the cost of the bill, The Hill reports,
while the House’s second tweak answers concerns from the Congressional
Black Caucus by requiring that at least 10 percent of the legislation’s
transportation spending goes to minority-owned or disadvantaged
businesses.

House leaders did not fix the provision
contested by the House transport committee that would award nearly 60
percent of $932 million in grants to four states while excluding 22
other states. The transport panel’s chairman, Jim Oberstar (D-MN), has
secured written support from Senate leaders to unwind that language in
a future bill.

Practically speaking, the House’s changes mean
that the Senate would need to hold another vote before the jobs bill
can become law.

Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR), Oberstar’s top
lieutenant, made the case for the bill on the House floor. In addition
to extending the 2005 transportation law until the end of the year,
DeFazio observed, the jobs bill would allow the highway trust fund to begin collecting interest payments after 10 years of forgoing them to the Treasury.

"We’re now going to reclaim that money … it’s going to be a billion dollars a month," he said.

Republicans,
led by Rep. Steven LaTourette (OH), countered that the jobs bill’s $13
billion in tax credits for new hires would be better used to pay for
more infrastructure investment.

Late Update: The House cleared the bill on a 217-201 vote.

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Moody’s Gifts Fossil-Fuel States With Positive Credit Outlook

Picture1.pngComparing the falloff in state tax revenue to shifts in total unemployment. (Chart: Moody's)

Credit-rating agencies -- particularly Moody's and S&P, the nation's two premier shops -- wield significant influence over the financial health of private companies. But state and local officials are often equally dependent on good credit ratings to borrow money for transportation and infrastructure improvements.

Even the federal government monitors its credit outlook to a degree that might surprise the average voter. When Moody's suggested last month that the mounting deficit might imperil America's AAA rating (the highest available), Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner leapt to the defense of Washington's fiscal health.

So which states do credit raters believe are weathering the recession, and which will continue to struggle with yawning deficits that jeopardize their ability to invest in transportation and infrastructure? Bob Kurtter, manager of Moody's state ratings team, addressed the question last month during a speech at New York University's Institute of Public Knowledge.

Only two states, California and Illinois, have seen their credit downgraded in recent months, Kurtter said. Negative credit outlooks have been issued for 15 more states, and two are benefiting from positive credit outlooks: West Virginia and Louisiana.

Why are things looking rosy for those two governments?

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New Dem Campaign Brands Stimulus Critics as ‘Highway Hypocrites’

2008412046.jpgRep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) joined others in her party in voting against the stimulus before praising its local impact. (Photo: Seattle Times)

As more media outlets note the phenomenon of GOP lawmakers who voted against the Obama administration's economic stimulus law before seeking -- and taking credit for winning -- a share of its infrastructure money, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is seizing an opening to tag its opponents as two-faced.

The DNC launched a "Highway Hypocrites" website today that asks voters to research whether their local representative is among those who blasted the stimulus in Washington before touting its value outside the Beltway.

But the system is flawed: those who provide address information to the DNC are only told whether their member of Congress voted for or against the stimulus, not whether they opposed it before returning home and stumping for transportation recovery money.

The names of the Republicans who played both ends of the stimulus debate are available in a research report released last month by bloggers at Think Progress, an affiliate of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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TCS: Disputed Transport Provision in Jobs Bill Rewarded Political Clout

A provision in the Senate jobs bill that would distribute $932 million in 2010 transportation funding based on existing earmarks is in line for a quick fix, thanks to a deal
struck on Friday between House transportation committee chairman Jim
Oberstar (D-MN) and Democratic leaders in the upper chamber.

6a00d8341c4df253ef00e54f5a86a38833_800wi.jpgFormer
House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), at right, came under fire for
profiting from a land deal along the proposed Prairie Parkway. (Image: ABC)

But
it’s worth delving more deeply into the earmarking that dominated the
two disputed grant programs, the Projects of Regional and National
Significance (PRNS) and the National Corridor
Infrastructure Improvement Program (NCIIP).

The
watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), which first coined the
term "Bridge to Nowhere" for Alaska’s infamous infrastructure earmark,
released a helpful spreadsheet
yesterday that shows which state projects claimed the lion’s share of
the PRNS and NCIIP money in the 2005 federal transport law. TCS also calculated
each state’s share of the grant programs, levels that would continue
this year if the Senate jobs bill passed without future corrections.

TCS’
research sheds further light on the objections of Oberstar and other
lawmakers who complained that the Senate jobs bill would send more than
half the $932 million to four states — California, Louisiana,
Illinois, and Washington. But it also answers the question of why those four states.

From the TCS report:

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Transportation Filibuster Update: Bunning Won’t Yield to Fellow GOPer

Federal infrastructure funding and many U.S. DOT workers remain in
limbo today as Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) continues his one-man filibuster
of legislation extending the 2005 transport law, turning himself into a
Democratic target and a poster child for Washington gridlock.

art.bunning.gi_1.pngSen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) was heard quipping "tough s—t" as he began blocking an extension of transportation law. (Photo: CNN)

Sen.
Susan Collins (R-ME) took to the floor of Congress’ upper chamber this
morning to seek Bunning’s consent for a restoration of federal
transport law and a one-month extension of unemployment benefits, but
the cantankerous Kentuckian would not yield — even to a fellow
Republican.

The shutdown of federal reimbursement for road, bridge,
bike-ped, and transit spending is costing states and localities $183
million per day, according to House transportation committee estimates.

Bunning’s
action has the effect of a classic filibuster, but his official gambit
has been ongoing objection to a vote on extending infrastructure,
unemployment, and several other programs. That one-month stopgap would
cost $10 billion, which Bunning wants to see paid for by taking money
from the White House’s stimulus law.

Yet he has refused
Senate leaders’ offer to vote on his proposal to use stimulus money,
acknowledging that it lacks the votes to pass. In the meantime,
thousands more U.S. DOT employees, including Federal Transit
Administration workers, are facing forced furloughs today.

"The
timing could not be worse for a lot of
reasons," Nevada state DOT director Susan Martinovich said in a
statement released by the American Association of State Highway and
Transportation Officials (AASHTO). "States need every dollar
they can get to improve our aging roads and bridges and put people to
work. … We should be awarding contracts for
spring construction right now, but instead many states are forced to
delay, and in some cases cancel, projects."

Democrats openly
branded Bunning as the face of Senate GOP obstructionism, with several
majority-party lawmakers sending him direct cease-and-desist appeals.

"This
is completely
unacceptable," Senate environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer
(D-CA) wrote in a letter to Bunning. "We can’t have an economic
recovery if people can’t make ends meet and if transportation projects
grind to a halt."

But when Senate Democrats released
a new $150 billion jobs plan yesterday that would retroactively extend
unemployment benefits until 2011, an extension of federal
transportation funding was not part of the package.

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Little-Known Provision in Senate Jobs Bill Could Spark House Resistance

The Senate passed its jobs bill today by a 70-28 vote,
bringing Congress one step closer to a $20 billion transfer that would
keep the nation’s highway trust fund solvent until 2011 and extend the
2005 federal transportation law.

0131mnfederal_dd_graphic_oberstar.jpgHouse transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) (Photo: Capitol Chatter)

The bill’s future in the House appears bright, as Democrats in that chamber point to
the urgent need to pass legislation showing their commitment to
stemming the rising tide of unemployment. But members of the House
transportation committee, including chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN),
remain concerned about a little-discussed provision in the Senate jobs
bill that they consider an unfairly biased distribution of
infrastructure funding.

The Senate language in question would extend two grant programs
created by the 2005 federal transport law, often referred to by its
acronym of SAFETEA-LU.

Those programs were the Projects of Regional and National Significance (PRNS),
which allowed lawmakers to steer funds to multi-year proposals that
often had a transit or freight component, and the National Corridor
Infrastructure Improvement Program (NCIIP), which focused largely on earmarks for massive road projects (including Alaska’s infamous Bridge to Nowhere).

Extending
the PRNS and NCIIP grants through the end of 2010 would result in an
estimated $932 million of new funding. The House-passed jobs bill
would free up that money for a merit-based process, with all 50 states
eligible to submit their transport plans, but the Senate-passed jobs
bill would keep that money flowing to its 2009 beneficiaries, according
to Oberstar’s office.

What does that mean in practice? Of the
$932 million, 58 percent would automatically go to four states:
California, Washington, Louisiana, and Illinois. Nine other states
would get between $20 million and $50 million in 2010, and 22 states
would "not receiv[e] a penny," as 23 members of Oberstar’s committee
wrote yesterday in a letter to House Democratic leaders.

Here’s a longer excerpt from that 23-lawmaker letter:

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House Lawmakers Hail Transportation Stimulus — But Add Three Caveats

At a House transportation committee hearing today that marked the
one-year anniversary of the Obama administration’s economic recovery
efforts, lawmakers offered praise for the stimulus law’s impact on
local infrastructure investments even as they hit upon three key areas
of concern with its implementation.

PortSkyView_thumb_355x281.gifThe Port of Los Angeles was shut out of the stimulus’ TIGER grant program. (Photo: USC)

Committee
chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) noted in his opening statement that 77
percent of the stimulus’ formula-based road and transit spending, or
$26.4 billion, has been put out to bid by state officials.

"Although
the [stimulus] has counteracted the increase in construction
unemployment, Congress must continue to focus on job creation,"
Oberstar said. "Additional funding for highway and transit projects
will immediately create and sustain needed employment."

Yet U.S. DOT deputy secretary John Porcari found himself fielding some tough queries from several Democrats.

Rep. Laura Richardson (D-CA), who represents the Los Angeles area, echoed Connecticut lawmakers in requesting a briefing on the rationale for excluding her district from the $1.5 billion in competitive TIGER stimulus grants that were awarded last week.

"To
be very frank with you, sir, I find it hard to understand how you can
fund port communities … and find it hard to fund the largest one in
the U.S.," Richardson said. The ports of L.A. and Long Beach collaborated
on a package that sought more than $365 million from TIGER (short for
Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery), but
ultimately fell short.

Even as she expressed frustration
with the lack of port grants, however, Richardson said she was pleased
with the TIGER program’s California winners.

"There was
overwhelming demand" for TIGER funding from states and localities,
Porcari explained, "and we look forward to next rounds of them." He
added that the U.S. DOT plans to refine the reporting requirements for
stimulus funding recipients going forward, noting that the
administration’s initial goal of maximizing transparency "turned into a
bit of an administrative burden."

The second caveat raised by Democrats dealt with a problem often lamented by civil-rights advocates: minority and disadvantaged contractors’ lack of access to transportation stimulus funds.

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The Upside of GOP ‘Hypocrisy’ on Transportation Stimulus Grants

To call Rep. Pete Sessions (TX), chairman of the House Republican
campaign committee, a critic of the Obama administration’s stimulus law
would be putting it mildly. Sessions marked the one-year anniversary of
the law’s passage last week by labeling the stimulus a "massive spending binge" that only "allegedly" created jobs in his district.

PeteSessionsBicyclePump.jpgIs
his advocacy for Dallas’s streetcar a sign of things to come from Rep.
Pete Sessions (R-TX, pictured with bicycle pump)? (Photo: Bildungblog)

So
Democrats could be forgiven for chuckling at the letter written by
Sessions last fall in support of stimulus funding for Dallas’ new
downtown streetcar. Giving a TIGER stimulus grant to the streetcar
project "will
create jobs in the region and improve the quality of life for
North Texans,” Sessions wrote to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at
the time — a request that paid off, as the streetcar claimed $23 million in TIGER money.

And Sessions wasn’t alone, as Bloomberg reports today
in a must-read story that counts more than 100 critics of the stimulus
law (both Republican and Democratic) who later turned around to seek
TIGER aid for transportation projects in their districts. Bloomberg
quotes Sessions attempting to contextualize his position on the
streetcar:

Sessions, in an e-mail, called the stimulus an “abject
failure” and said he’d vote against it again if he could.

The lawmaker said his objections don’t keep him “from
asking federal agencies for their full consideration of critical
infrastructure and competitive grant projects for North Texas
when asked to do so by my constituents.”

Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson (WY), appointed by the president to
co-chair a highly visible deficit reduction commission, told Bloomberg
that lawmakers’ have-their-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to stimulus aid
amounts to "hypocrisy."

But
it could also have an unlikely upside for backers of the infrastructure
policy-making strategy epitomized by the $1.5 billion TIGER program
(short for Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery).

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