The Infrastructure President?

There are two President Obamas when it comes to infrastructure spending.

There is the Obama who at the Port of Jacksonville on Thursday extolled the virtues of deepening port harbors so post-Panamax ships able to fit through the expanded Panama Canal can call on the East Coast. And then there is the Obama who has pushed back against Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund reform and balked at raising the fuel tax to fix the nation’s ailing surface transport system. Consider his comments at the Northeast Florida port and the context:

“We know strong infrastructure is a key ingredient to a thriving economy. That's how the United States became the best place in the world to do business. Unfortunately, over the past two years, too many folks in Washington have been cutting these investments.”

Obama has consistently pushed for more infrastructure spending but hasn’t explained where the money will come from. His proposal to use savings from the winding down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is considered a non-starter in Congress. Like Congress, Obama has balked at raising the fuel tax or even indexing the tax to inflation despite the Highway Trust Fund facing bankruptcy next year.

“If we want our workers and businesses to compete, then our ports have to be ready to receive those supertankers. Otherwise, they'll go to Brazil or some other place.”

Actually, those "supertankers" — they're really container ships — will simply go to other East Coast ports with harbors deep enough to handle them.

“So that's why last year I acted without Congress, and I took executive action to speed up the permitting process that gets workers breaking ground on projects like this one."

Obama pledged to speed up the Jaxport harbor deepening study so it could be done in April, but the study hasn’t been finished.

“There's a bipartisan bill in the Senate to fund critical improvements in our highways and our bridges, our transit and rail systems and our ports like this one. And so the House should act quickly on that bill.”

The Obama administration criticized language in the Senate's Water Resources Development Act aimed at forcing the Army Corps of Engineers to spend all collected Harbor Maintenance Taxes on ports by fiscal 2020. The Senate wants to stop appropriators from siphoning dollars from the HMTF to fill budget holes. In other words, the administration doesn’t want to have to cut other programs so ports can get back all the money they collect through levies on imported goods. The administration also criticized language in the bill aimed at streamlining corps project permitting, saying it could “jeopardize bedrock environmental law.”

Admittedly, it’s good that Obama has steadfastly highlighted the need to improve the nation’s transportation infrastructure. But lofty rhetoric doesn’t pay for more road construction crews or pull sediment out of harbors.

Contact Mark Szakonyi at mszakonyi@joc.com and follow him at twitter.com/szakonyi_joc.

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