With visit, president pushes for road and rail fixes, restoration work.
Citing newly restored Union Depot as an example of what federal and local partnerships can produce, President Obama told a St. Paul audience Wednesday that he is out to “create more good jobs” even if Congress won’t go along with his plans for rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.
Obama announced more funding for the federal grant competition that helped pay for Ramsey County’s $243 million renovation of the depot, part of what he called his “opportunity agenda” to boost jobs, training, education and wages.
He also spelled out a four-year plan to build, fix or maintain thousands of miles of roads and rail lines. “On all these issues, we’re reaching out to members of Congress, looking to see if they’re willing to work with us on some of these priorities,” he said. “But … in this year of action, whenever I can partner directly with states or cities or business leaders or civic leaders to act on this opportunity agenda, I’m going to go ahead and do it. We can’t wait.”
The St. Paul stop is one in a series the president is making across the country to pitch the economic plans he unveiled in his State of the Union address last month.
In addition to calling for new transportation spending, Obama called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and extend emergency unemployment benefits. If Congress balks, the president vowed, he’d use executive orders to advance his agenda.
Obama’s proposals face uncertain prospects in Congress, where many Republicans believe a minimum wage boost could cost jobs and that new federal spending could harm efforts to reduce the budget deficit.
The president praised Minnesota on the wage front Wednesday, noting that, “Your state Legislature is poised to raise your minimum wage this year.” Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL House leaders want to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour.
Meeting building, transport needs
Obama said that other countries are spending twice as much as the United States on infrastructure to draw new business, “but we don’t want businesses going there. We want them to come here to Minnesota.” He’s proposed closing tax loopholes to help pay for the $302 billion plan, which he is including in his 2015 budget proposal.
The president spoke for 21 minutes to an appreciative crowd estimated at 1,300 in the depot’s gleaming, barrel-vaulted waiting room. Reopened in late 2012, Union Depot hosts a number of bus lines and will begin Amtrak service this spring.
Obama has urged Congress to pass a transportation funding bill by the fall. The current funding bill expires Sept. 30, and without action the White House says that more than 700,000 jobs are at risk.
The Highway Trust Fund, which relies on an 18.4-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline to pay for the federal share of roads spending, could run out of money as soon as August, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has said.
The tax hasn’t been raised in two decades, and with Americans driving less and turning to more fuel-efficient vehicles, the trust fund is struggling to keep pace with the country’s road and maintenance needs.
The $600 million grant competition that Obama announced Wednesday allows states to apply for funding for transportation projects that “have a significant impact.”
This would be the sixth round of funding for the federal program, first established under Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus bill.
Infrastructure concerns in St. Paul
His proposal comes at a time when legislators are also searching for ways to stretch infrastructure dollars.
State Sen. Scott Dibble, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said that pothole season was just part of the state’s transportation woes.