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A New Transportation Secretary to Push an Old Obama Favorite: Infrastructure Spending

Infrastructure has been a longtime favorite of the Obama administration.

During the president’s 2013 State of the Union address, he proposed a “Fix it First” program, calling for $50 billion in frontloaded infrastructure investments as part of his “Plan for a Strong Middle Class & a Strong America.”

Back in 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that Obama signed into law obligated $48.3 billion of stimulus funds for Department of Transportation (DOT) projects, as reported Jan. 28, 2013.

On July 6, 2012, Obama also signed a multi-year transportation authorization bill, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), which funds transportation programs at over $105 billion for fiscal years 2013 and 2014.

But the flow of cash has ended, say infrastructure spending proponents.

Surrounded by first responders, Obama in February urged Congress to take action against the automatic budget cuts, which did not sit well with GOP leadership and didn’t make fiscal conservatives in Congress budge.

“Now for two years, I’ve offered a balanced approach to deficit reduction that would prevent these harmful cuts,” Obama said. “I outlined it again last week at the State of the Union. I am willing to cut more spending that we don’t need, get rid of programs that aren’t working. I’ve laid out specific reforms to our entitlement programs that can achieve the same amount of healthcare savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms that were proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission.”

Obama’s event at the White House “proves once again that more than three months after the November election, President Obama still prefers campaign events to common sense, bipartisan action,” Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said.

At a Feb. 25 press conference, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) urged the president to “stop campaigning.” “Instead of using our military men and women as campaign props, if the president was serious he’d sit down with Harry Reid and begin to address our problems,” he said. “The House has acted twice, we shouldn’t have to act a third time before the Senate begins to do their work.”

This gridlock, however, is a situation the administration likes to find ways to work around.

Bypassing the “do-nothing” 112th Congress was the M.O. of the president’s first term in which he started his We Can’t Wait initiative. The initiative’s approach relied on avoiding Congress and taking executive actions, several of which involved expediting millions for infrastructure and transportation projects.

Back in August 2012, for instance, the administration announced that it would repurpose more than $470 million in unspent earmarks from fiscal year 2003-2006 appropriations acts. According to the DOT, 49 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico were authorized to use the funds for new infrastructure projects.

“My administration will continue to do everything we can to put Americans back to work,” Obama said at the time of the announcement, when 11.3 percent of the construction sector was unemployed. “We’re not going to let politics stand between construction workers and good jobs repairing our roads and bridges."

“At a time when one in five construction workers is out of work, these are the jobs we need, and we need them right now,” LaHood also said at the time.

Alabama was able to allocate $51,488,747.50 of unobligated balances to a total of 21 new projects; Ohio $12,536,823.13 for 15 projects.

According to Doug Hecox, public affairs specialist with the Federal Highway Administration, the various projects across the board have been underway since Dec. 1, 2012.

The sector is still struggling nearly six months later.

In fact, even more of the sector is unemployed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for the construction sector is now 14.7 percent.

Hecox said he could not comment on the unemployment rate.

“It’s the start of a new year, but it’s the same old story; too many Americans are out of work,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), new chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for the 113th Congress. “President Obama refuses to make job creation and the welfare of the American people a priority. … House Republicans have been working towards real solutions and it’s time for the President and Senate Democrats to come to the table and work together to grow our economy.”