Obama urges Congress to act on job-creating infrastructure bill

WASHINGTON (AP) – The government is running out of money to repair deteriorating roads, bridges and ports, and President Obama says more federal spending will help avert a looming crisis that could stifle economic growth and torment commuters.

Obama’s visit Wednesday afternoon to New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge was a central part of his administration effort this week to call attention to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

The major Hudson River crossing point, which opened to traffic in 1955, is now being replaced at a cost of $3.9 billion. The financing is largely by bonds paid for through higher tolls.

In addition to promoting a four-year, $302 billion transportation plan that he wants Congress to back, the president intended to cite efforts to cut red tape and delays in permitting, according to the White House.

Obama also was to headline a pair of high-dollar fundraisers benefiting Democratic candidates in the November elections. On Thursday, the president and first lady Michelle Obama planned to attend the dedication ceremony for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx kicked off the public works push Monday, warning that the Highway Trust Fund, which relies on gasoline taxes, could run dry in August. Those taxes haven’t gone up in 20 years.

Obama was expected to announce modest steps to speed up the permitting process for infrastructure projects. The plan would try to improve coordination among agencies so projects aren’t slowed by multiple reviews, the White House said.

The White House said the permitting process for the Tappan Zee’s replacement normally would have taken three years to five years, but was completed in 1 1/2 years because of quicker reviews and other changes.

Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, applauded Obama for taking immediate steps to accelerate and expand permitting reform government-wide, but expressed frustration with the high unemployment rate among construction workers.

“While the skilled craft professionals who comprise North America’s Building Trades Unions continue to feel frustrated with a national unemployment rate in excess of 9 percent in the construction industry, this serves as welcome news. Far too often, American workers are stuck in limbo while permitting delays drag on and on.

“In any event, our unions look forward to working with Congress, as well as the president, to expedite the groundbreaking of long-awaited, and long-needed, infrastructure projects that will strengthen our economy and put Americans to work.”

Republicans seemed to run for cover behind the Keystone XL pipeline to hide their own obstructionism in preventing the passage of a meaningful infrastructure bill.

“It’s a real challenge to listen to the president talk about reforming the permitting system when he’s been sitting on the permit for the country’s largest shovel-ready infrastructure program, the Keystone XL pipeline, for five years,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Obama launched his push for infrastructure 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.

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.

With GOP opposition keeping the federal government from moving on Obama-backed legislation that would create massive numbers of jobs, the unions have been mapping out specific initiatives that could get the job done.

In addition, the unions have been lobbying for an approach to the legislations that would provide jobs for the women and minorities who increasingly are becoming the future of the nation’s construction industries.

Thousands of the workers hired should be women and minorities, said Martin Walsh, the former president of the Greater Boston Building and Construction Trades Council.

Not the least significant thing about Walsh’s remarks is that he is now the elected mayor of Boston. Walsh, elected in that city Jan. 6, touted his city’s Building Pathways Program that, he said, could be a model for the country. The program recruits and trains minority youth and women for construction jobs.

The emphasis on youth is needed, Walsh said, because the average age of a building trades worker is 59.

Walsh called the Boston program “a resource for both job creation and bridge-building” by construction unions to women and minorities. “We talk about poverty, achievement gaps and lack of opportunity,” he said. “We need to find ways to create new jobs and new opportunities to close the income gap. There’s only one group that can close that gap: organized labor.”

On Thursday, May 15 at 1:00 p.m., the AFL-CIO, the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO and North America’s Building Trades Unions will host a rally for jobs and infrastructure as part of a coalition leading “Infrastructure Week 2014.”

Advertising in support of the bill is already underway. This week, a radio spot starts running in Pittsburgh. It’s got Big Band music from 1928, and an announcer praising pioneer female pilot Amelia Earhart, before he switches gears. He talks about Pittsburgh’s Liberty Bridge, which opened that year – and how it could fall down. The bridge, you see, is “structurally deficient” for traffic it now carries.”

That ad and others, along with billboards, are part of a new Laborers $1 million ad campaign to get voters to put pressure on Congress to approve a long-term highway-mass transit funding bill.

The campaign, unveiled by union President Terry O’Sullivan at a May 12 press conference, is part of a coordinated push by construction unions, the AFL-CIO, pro-union contractors, the Chamber of Commerce, and highway users to get lawmakers to approve the legislation before money from the current federal highway-mass transit law runs out.

Photo: Obama discusses fixing America’s infrastructure. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP