Obama infrastructure proposal still leaves key differences with Oberstar-Obey spending plan

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Obama today called for an increase in infrastructure funding, but it remains unclear exactly how his latest initiatives to accelerate job growth change the landscape on the rebuilding issue.

“These are needed public works that engage private sector companies, spurring hiring all across the country,” Obama said of projects to be funded by the increased spending. “I recognize that by their nature these projects often take time, and will therefore create jobs over time.  But the need for jobs will also last beyond next year and the benefits of these investments will last years beyond that.  So adding to this initiative to rebuild America’s infrastructure is the right thing to do.”

The White House, Senate and House leaders, chiefly Transportation Chairman Jim Oberstar and Appropriations Chairman David Obey, have been locked in a battle over the future of infrastructure funding for much of the year. At issue: Exactly how much money will be doled out, when and under what authority?

While the White House hasn’t released many details of the president’s plan, reports citing unnamed administration officials say their targeted investment amount is about $50 billion.  According to an administration briefing fact sheet distributed to reporters today, the White House “supports financing infrastructure investments in new ways, allowing projects to be selected on merit and leveraging money with a combination of grants and loans” similar to a program used under the stimulus law.

The Oberstar-Obey plan calls for a $100 billion increase in infrastructure funding over two years, doling out money to states by a formula and allowing them to pick the most worthy projects.

Oberstar spokesman John Schadl said the congressman was “thrilled” to see such an emphasis on transportation and infrastructure spending from the White House, and that he would seriously consider any plan the president lays out. However, Schadl said Oberstar has concerns if the White House’s new formula means federalizing transportation spending decisions.

“Money goes out best when it is distributed according to formula, and that is one of the reasons we were able to get the money under the stimulus act out so quickly,” Schadl said. “Having the federal government involved in picking and choosing is a recipe for delay.”

Regardless of which plan is used, most of the money could be spent quickly. A total of 9,588 projects costing estimated $69 billion are ready to break ground within the four months, according to a report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Oberstar’s original funding preference, a full six-year surface transportation reauthorization bill, has been stalled in light of objections from the White House and Senate, which both back an 18-month extension of the current surface transportation funding bill, a plan Oberstar blocked. A group of senators proposed a compromise six-month extension, which Oberstar said he’d only consider if it were joined with a commitment by all parties to work on a long-term funding solution.

The latest stop-gap continuations of funding under the current surface transportation funding bill are set to expire on Dec. 18.

A White House spokesperson, asked about Obama’s thoughts on Oberstar-Obey, declined to comment and referred MinnPost to the president’s remarks outlining a three-pronged effort to stimulate jobs and economic growth.

Derek Wallbank is MinnPost’s Washington, D.C., correspondent. He can be reached at dwallbank[at]minnpost[dot]com.

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