Union leaders hail Obama infrastructure push

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WASHINGTON (PAI) - Laborers Union President Terry O'Sullivan and AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind hailed President Obama's push to get Congress to enact a $302 billion four-year mass-transit-highway construction bill. And AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka? "Bring it on!"

Obama launched his latest push for the legislation in a Feb. 26 speech in the Twin Cities. He lauded their new light rail line - and said the U.S. needs to upgrade its infrastructure. Under tea party sway, the House's ruling Republicans generally resist.

"The president wants to push for public and private infrastructure investment, we say bring it on. Union workers stand ready to meet the needs of the largest project you can think up," Trumka declared. "We didn't become the world's largest economy just by good luck. We made massive, smart investments in public goods at the right times. And we'll do it again. Our government and business leaders can invest smarter, and our workers can build it better."

Obama told his audience that he's focusing on infrastructure because time and money are running out. "If Congress doesn't finish a transportation bill by the end of the summer, we could see construction projects stop in their tracks, machines sitting idle, workers off the job," he warned.

His budget will rebuild transportation infrastructure responsibly "over four years, which gives cities and states and private investors the certainty they need to plan major projects. Projects like repairing essential highways and bridges (and) building new transit systems in fast-growing cities and communities, so folks who live there can get to work and school every day and spend less time sitting in traffic.

"All told, my transportation budget will support millions of jobs nationwide. And we'll pay for these investments in part by simplifying the tax code. We're going to close wasteful tax loopholes, lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs here at home, stop rewarding companies for sending jobs to other countries, and use the money we save in this transition to create good jobs with good wages rebuilding America. It makes sense," Obama declared.

Wytkind and O'Sullivan liked what they heard. O'Sullivan reiterated, however, that transportation projects should be paid for by a phased-in hike of the federal gas tax, which has stayed stagnant since 1993.

"For too long, the duct-tape approach by Congress has destabilized the construction industry, stalled projects, cost jobs and slowed our economy," he said.

"More discussion and debate is welcome, but ultimately there must be action as the facts remain clear: The average bridge in our country is 45 years old, dangerously close to the average 50-year lifespan. Typically, 25 bridges a year collapse in the U.S. Every dollar we invest now could save $14 later due to higher costs caused by further deterioration. Delaying investment costs motorists more than $324 a year each on wasted fuel and repairs.

"Adjusting the gas tax remains the most reliable, common-sense means of bridging the gap between needs and investment. The gas tax has been stagnant for two decades while needs and construction materials costs have increased. A phased-in increase will be enough to fuel our nation's Highway Trust Fund before it runs out of gas and allow our nation the time it needs to develop alternative, longer-term solutions, such as vehicle miles travelled fee, innovative financing tools and other solutions," he said.

"We're pleased the president has declared it a priority to fix the surface transportation funding crisis that is threatening our economy and American competitiveness," Wytkind added. Obama's unveiling of the $302 billion proposal "adds a sense of urgency to the debate as Congress and the president deal with the imminent insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund."

The trust fund, which gas tax revenues fuels, is projected to run out of money by August, right in the middle of construction season. It has around $9 billion left.

Wytkind said he took labor's views on infrastructure investment to a roundtable the GOP-run House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hosted. The panelists discussed enacting a new highway-mass transit bill, what it should pay for and how to pay for the projects.

"We echoed the view that the funding crisis must be fixed with a long-term legislative solution," Wytkind explained.

"Without new revenues, such as an increase in the federal fuel tax or through alternative tax proposals, our transit systems, highways and bridges will continue to decay and we will harm commuters and businesses, and idle millions of good jobs. We will direct our energy toward enactment of a bipartisan, long-term bill that creates middle-class jobs and protects the rights of workers."

O'Sullivan acknowledged the tea partyites and other foes would try to halt the highway-mass transit bill in its tracks, due to the tax plan. He dismissed their claims.

"While the knee-jerk reaction of some in Congress has been to reject adjusting the tax, abundant polling shows the American public will accept paying pennies more if they are assured the resources will make the roads, bridges and transit they use every day safer and more modern," he declared.       

Photo: Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, Facebook page

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