WASHINGTON — President Obama’s jobs council has made transportation investment one of five priorities for accelerating job growth and improving the country’s long-term competitiveness.
The council’s 50-page report released Tuesday included moving forward with a national infrastructure bank and a long-term surface transportation bill with spending based on cost-effectiveness, promoting public-private partnerships, and allowing states to toll or price highways to rectify deficits in the Highway Trust Fund.
Obama met in Pittsburgh with what is officially known as the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Council chairman and GE chief executive Jeffrey Immelt told the president that “on infrastructure, we’re in violent agreement. I don’t hear anybody disagreeing with need.”
“We’ve got to move some product here,” Immelt said,
Referring to his American Jobs Act as well as longer-term proposals, Obama said, “I don’t know how Congress will respond.”
The good news, though, is that “there’s just a bunch of stuff” that can be done now, and “most of it should not be controversial,” he said.
The president said he had instructed his staff to “scour” the jobs council report for things that the administration could do without congressional action.
On Monday, for example, the White House announced 14 infrastructure projects had been put on a fast track for regulatory approval.
The council first recommended reauthorizing the main surface transportation programs, noting that “there is little incentive or structure in the political process to assure that the nation’s most pressing infrastructure priorities will be chosen for funding on a rational basis.” There should be a formal requirement for cost-effectiveness in the programs, it said.
The council then recommended expanding existing public-private financing mechanisms. It said $14 billion of private-activity bonds authorized by the Department of Transportation have yet to be allocated. It recommended letting funds from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program be moved into the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan program. The council called for the PAB and TIFIA programs to be “significantly expanded.”
The council also recommended that Congress explore the creation of a national infrastructure bank. “There is little direct private investment in infrastructure projects in the United States compared to many other countries,” the report said, and an NIB could “greatly increase the amount of private funding.”
An NIB has some bipartisan support in Congress but neither of the current House or Senate long-term surface transportation plans includes a national bank. The council urged that the bank include aviation, energy, rail and water treatment projects, as well as roads and bridges chosen for financial assistance by merit.
The NIB would be self-sustaining and not, as council member and UBS Americas chairman Robert Wolf emphasized, a government-sponsored enterprise like Fannie Mae with the attendant taxpayer risk. It would be fully owned by the government with no private shareholder conflicts of interest, he said.
“The aim is to be self-sustaining, not profit-making,” and, particularly relevant to Fannie Mae, “the NIB has no leverage” and will not borrow, Wolf said.
The Jobs Council also wanted to “protect and preserve user-based funding of the Highway Trust Fund.”
With fuel tax revenue unable to maintain current spending levels, the report said states should be allowed to “toll or price highways eligible for federal aid,” which would include the controversial tolling of Interstate highways.