President Barack Obama said Wednesday he will ask Congress for $302 billion to update aging roads and railways, arguing that the taxpayer investment is a worthy one that will pay dividends by attracting businesses and helping put people to work.
Obama announced his plan at the Union Depot rail and bus station after touring a light rail maintenance facility. Funding for surface transportation programs expires later this year, and the White House says 700,000 jobs could be at risk unless Congress renews them.
"I just had a chance to take a look at some of those spiffy new trains. They are nice!" Obama said the same about the newly renovated Union Depot that's becoming a transportation hub.
He said the depot project has spurred revitalization in St. Paul's Lowertown and he said the Green Line, which is slated to begin carrying passengers in mid-June, is doing the same thing.
"We're seeing businesses crop up and new development crop up all along the line, so everybody's winning," Obama said. He noted federal "flexibility" allowed the line "to stop in some poor neighborhoods that oftentimes had difficulty getting to the places where there are jobs."
Obama argued before a friendly, often cheering crowd, that by failing to keep current with transportation projects, the U.S. risks being left behind by other countries that are investing heavily in roads, bridges, rail lines and ports.
"The bottom line is there's work to be done, workers ready to do it," he said, adding that one of Congress' major responsibilities is to help states and cities pay for such projects.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx warned Wednesday of a "transportation cliff" coming in August or September when the Highway Trust Fund, which finances federal highway and transit projects, is forecast to go broke.
The trust fund will need an influx of $100 billion over the next six years just to maintain transportation spending levels. But Obama and Congress have been unwilling to raise federal gasoline and diesel fuel taxes that have been the main source of federal transportation funding for decades.
In the budget he sends Congress next week, Obama will propose that half of the $302 billion he's seeking come from an overhaul of the corporate tax system.
Obama stressed the job-creating power of federal transportation projects. As part of his promise to take action where Congress won't, he also announced a $600 million competition for federal grants to help local governments pay for infrastructure projects.
After the speech, Sandy Rummel of White Bear Lake, who was one of the 1,300 people in audience, said she thought the president was right on track.
"If we don't take care of the resources we have we're going to lose out, we're going to fall behind and others will move ahead and we'll lose jobs and all of the things he said I believe were really true," Rummel said.
But Republicans panned Obama's visit by slamming the notion that economic stimulus spending does anything to spur job growth and economic development.
And for them, as if on cue a couple of hours after the president left St. Paul, a Green Line train that was being tested near the Capitol left the tracks. Republicans labeled it a metaphor for what they say are Obama's failed policies.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.