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.
"We're not keeping up with our infrastructure needs. We're not fixing what we've got, so it's all falling apart," said Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who hopes Obama's transportation initiative will encourage the Legislature to expand road, bridge and mass transit projects.
House Transportation Finance Committee Chairman Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, cheered the president's call to refuel the depleted Highway Trust Fund, calling it "a necessity if we want a high-quality transportation system to get people to jobs, goods to markets and improve our quality of life."
The two have called for an increase in the state gas tax as part of a transportation plan, but legislative leaders say they don't plan to take up that idea this year.
Republican legislators greeted Obama's visit with a news conference expressing ongoing concerns about the Affordable Care Act and Minnesota's online health insurance marketplace, MNsure.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey said that "We all want good infrastructure, no doubt, and government plays an important role, but this is just the same old same old, copy and paste speech the president has been giving for five years now. The jobs never materialize and the stimulus spending and tax increases never grow the economy. But when Democrats are scared and need to garner support, they start talking about roads and bridges again."
St. Paul's living room
Obama arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport at 1:21 p.m. and was greeted by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, Col. Todd McCubbin the commander of the 934th Airlift Wing, and a subzero windchill.
"It's cold," Obama told Coleman after stepping off Air Force One. But he teased Foxx, a North Carolina native, for griping about the weather.
The presidential motorcade moved swiftly to the light-rail operations and maintenance facility in St. Paul's Lowertown district, where Obama toured a workstation, two light-rail cars and a vending machine used to buy a ticket that he autographed.
The facility will serve the trains that will run on the Green Line, which opens this summer.
"Now this is a spiffy-looking train," the president said before boarding with Foxx and Mark Fuhrmann of Metro Transit.
A few minutes later, shortly after 2:30 p.m., Foxx introduced the president at Union Depot.
Obama greeted the state's Democratic leaders, said that ailing former Vice President Walter Mondale was in his thoughts and prayers, and congratulated Minnesota on sending so many athletes to the recent Winter Olympics.
"It is not shocking that Minnesotans might be pretty good at the Winter Olympics," he said.
He admitted that he wasn't so adept: "I grew up in Hawaii — we do not have hockey in Hawaii."
Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, who was instrumental in Union Depot's renovation, said the day matched the vision that the county's rail authority had for the restored transit hub.
"We welcomed the president to St. Paul's living room. And we had a celebration about what we could do as partners," he said.
Staff writer Jennifer Brooks contributed to this report.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell