By Charles Hallman
President Barack Obama, in St. Paul on Wednesday, reiterated his vow he made earlier in his State of the Union address in January that he will take action when needed if Congress won’t.
“I’m just going to do what I can…” proclaimed Obama during a nearly 20-minute speech to an enthusiastic overflowing audience at the Union Depot in downtown St. Paul. While in town Wednesday, the president unveiled a $302 billion four-year surface transportation infrastructure plan, which Obama said he plans to present next week to Congress as part of his White House budget.
“I’m going to send a budget…to plan major projects” over four years, explained the president. Repairing and updating roads, bridges and other transit systems in this country is so badly needed — some are “old enough to qualify for Medicare,” he briefly joked.
Then Obama seriously added that Congress must pass a new transportation bill by this summer or over 700,000 jobs are in jeopardy. As a result, he told the crowd that he is authorizing the U.S. Department of Transportation to make available $600 million for transportation projects across the country through the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) competitive grant program. The program was part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that Obama introduced shortly after his election in 2008. It has funded 270 transit projects nationwide.
“I’m just going to do what I can to get more jobs while Congress decides to act,” reaffirmed the president. Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter pointed out after the speech, “Transit jobs are good for our economy.”
“If anyone is to advocate for transportation, it should come from the top,” Ruthie Brooks of Pasadena, California told the MSR prior to the president’s speech. She was in town visiting family members.
Obama’s “aggressive four-year plan” includes $35 million to help communities design economic development plans, such as regional transportation planning; $206 billion to improve the nation’s highways; $72 billion for transit systems and expand transportation options; $63 billion to fill the “funding gap” in the Highway Trust Fund, and $19 billion for “high performance and passenger rail programs,” including creating better connections between key cities.
Community organizer Veronica Burt of St. Paul told the newspaper how excited she was to hear the president’s transportation vision also includes local communities.
The president’s visit to the capitol city Wednesday, which included a brief tour of the new Green Line that connects the Twin Cities’ two downtowns, impressed MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle. “It was wonderful that the president put a spotlight on something we know in Minnesota [is important],” he told the MSR after the president’s speech.
“I thought the president’s speech was right on point,” said Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsay. “Building roads and creating infrastructure for all of us is extremely important.”
“I thought he is setting the right path for our country in transportation,” added Merhawit Kubrom, who is from Burnsville.
“This is the beginning and not the end,” pledged Obama. “We can’t wait.”
More on President Obama’s visit in next week’s MSR print edition.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman @ spokesman-recorder.com.