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Transportation infrastructure a major theme in Obama’s State of the Union Address

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
January 26, 2011

Not surprisingly, transportation infrastructure was a major theme of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address last night.

“To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information – from high-speed rail to high-speed internet,” said Obama. “Our infrastructure used to be the best – but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a ‘D.’”

Obama also stressed the fact that America needs to do a better job than it is doing now, when it comes to infrastructure, noting that America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, and constructed the interstate highway system. What’s more, he cited how these innovations led to increased business activity in the form of businesses that opened near a town’s new train station or the new off-ramp.

“One of the things that are important as part of Obama’s Department of Transportation is the need for a multi-modal system of transportation that serves our needs in the many way we use it,” said Leslie Blakey, executive director of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors. “Many other countries do have the edge on us right now multi-modally and are applying great systems perspectives to transportation in how they have gotten there.”

Blakey said that America needs to do the same things with a freight system-oriented focus, building on the already remarkable job the nation does in moving goods. But she said that the system focus needs to home in on building infrastructure, remove bottlenecks, get linkages built, and remove capacity constraints in a cleaner and greener way so that communities will want to have freight moving their regions along with the job creation infrastructure brings.

And while infrastructure was a core part of Obama’s message to the country, it was far from the first time that the President has rang the bell for increased and continued attention and investment into infrastructure.

This was evidenced in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which Obama signed into law in February 2009, shortly after he was sworn in. Also known as the “Economic Stimulus,” this measure allocated nearly $50 billion for infrastructure-related initiatives, including: $27.5 billion for highway and bridge construction projects; $8.4 billion for mass transit, public transportation projects; $8 billion for high-speed rail projects; $1.3 billion for aviation projects; $4.6 billion for water infrastructure projects undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and $100 million for the Maritime Administration; and $1.5 billion for a discretionary program for large multi-modal and intermodal projects in the form of competitive grants to state and local governments for transportation investments—including highway, rail, transit, or port infrastructure.

Despite these allocations, many freight transportation and logistics stakeholders said these investments were not close to the true amount needed to get infrastructure development back on the right track.

Another infrastructure-focused effort Obama has cited several times during his tenure is an Infrastructure Bank, which he prominently mentioned at a labor rally in Milwaukee last September.

An infrastructure bank would increase funding that is severely needed for surface transportation projects by leveraging private and state and local capital to invest in projects critical to economic success, rather than the more traditional federal government approach of spending through earmarks and formula-based grants.

This is not the first time the idea of an infrastructure bank has been floated. In fact, Obama’s proposed 2011 budget includes $4 billion to create a national infrastructure bank to provide a source of funding for infrastructure needs, which was rejected by a House Appropriations Committee transportation panel subcommittee in July. And he also broached the concept of an infrastructure bank that would invest $60 billion over a 10-year period for highways, technology, and other projects while running for President.

While Obama is keen on leveraging infrastructure to drive the American economy back into a higher gear, the future of long-term federal surface transportation funding has been in a state of flux and been kept afloat due to a series of continuing resolutions since it expired on September 30, 2009.

“We continue to be encouraged that President Obama supports investing in America’s transportation infrastructure – recognizing the role it plays in creating jobs, growing the national economy and balancing the federal deficit,” said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), in a statement. “The President understands that America needs a sustainable federal transportation program that helps state departments of transportation modernize and maintain our nation’s transportation systems, and creates jobs during a critical moment in our nation’s economic recovery.”

Horsley added that AASHTO looks forward to working with the Administration and Congress to pass a new transportation authorization bill this year to ensure the country have a safe and efficient transportation system that can create and sustain hundreds of thousands of jobs, and that will continue to support America’s recovering economy.

For more articles on transportation infrastructure, click here.

About the Author

Jeff Berman headshot
Jeff Berman
Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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