January 20, 2015 10:40 PM, EST
Obama to Congress: ‘Pass a Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan’
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

In his State of the Union address Jan. 20, President Obama sought to reassure Americans that his administration is determined to finance big-ticket infrastructure projects with Congress’ help to boost key industries such as trucking and construction. 

Obama said “modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest Internet” are pillars of a society determined to be economically prosperous. He then challenged members of Congress to not set their sights on one infrastructure project, mainly the Keystone XL pipeline, but to approve legislation that upgrades infrastructure networks in cities and states.

“Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this. So let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come,” Obama said.

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Leaders with the American Trucking Associations expressed disappointment, saying that President Obama failed to more fully flesh out his vision for a well-funded, long-term highway bill in the State of the Union address.

"Just mentioning infrastructure is not a solution to our nation's critical needs, and by simply bringing the topic up without details, President Obama missed an opportunity to underscore the critical role our highway system plays in our economic well-being,” said ATA President Bill Graves. “Now is the time, with the Highway Trust Fund set to go bankrupt in May, to show vision and leadership and most importantly, find funding, to keep that from happening. The trucking industry calls on the President and Congress to end this unnecessary uncertainty by funding our nation's infrastructure and passing a new highway bill."

Obama also referred to the White House’s four-year legislative proposal that relies on corporate tax reform to come up with money for transportation.

“Let’s close loopholes so we stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad, and reward those that invest in America. Let’s use those savings to rebuild our infrastructure and make it more attractive for companies to bring jobs home,” Obama said.

The president also credited lower gas prices and higher fuel standards for helping the “typical family this year” save $750 at the pump.

Days earlier the administration unveiled a plan that would tap the private sector for funds with the objective of raising capital for infrastructure projects. Specifically, the Qualified Public Infrastructure Bond proposal would give public-private partnerships (P3s) access to low interest rates and the tax benefits of municipal bonds.

The Department of Transportation indicated that Secretary Anthony Foxx would expand on the administration’s plans on the agency’s website Jan. 21.

In Congress, Republican leaders who control both chambers are preparing to send the White House legislation that would approve the Keystone oil pipeline — a measure that drew a veto threat.

Moreover, congressional leaders have yet to say how they plan to reauthorize highway programs and fund surface transportation projects nationwide before a 2012 transportation law expires in May.

There are myriad ways policymakers could fund highway projects, but not one has garnered sufficient support. Large firms and many transportation groups, such as American Trucking Associations, would support raising fuel taxes. But increasing the federal tax on gas and diesel — not done since 1993 — is unpopular with the administration and most lawmakers.

In a speech hours before the start of the State of the Union, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told a crowd at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington “a gas tax increase is very unlikely.” Hatch, chairman of the influential tax-writing Finance Committee, is expected to come up with a transportation funding proposal this year. 

“I believe we can find other solutions,” Hatch said.

Robert D. Stevens, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said his group applauds Obama for addressing the need to fund infrastructure projects.

“There is a public funding crisis in this country as it relates to our nation’s aging roads and bridges," Stevens said, in a statement shortly after the president's address. "States and localities cannot shoulder the burden of rebuilding America alone. They need a strong federal partner and robust, multi-year legislation to deliver transportation projects and keep America moving."