He isn’t on the guest list, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will be on everyone’s mind Monday when President Barack Obama calls for a bipartisan commitment to quickly approve $50 billion in federal spending on roads, rails and airports.
A group of mayors, governors and former transportation officials, including a few Republicans, will join the president at the White House to endorse his push to spend the money as soon as possible to help boost the sagging economy.
The White House tried to bolster its case with a new study arguing that the public is clamoring for such investments and that 90 percent of the jobs created would go to middle class workers in industries harder hit than most by the downturn.
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell said that Obama believes infrastructure spending could anchor a new bipartisan agenda for 2011 that will appeal to Republicans who may control the House by then.
“I know the president believes that,” said Rendell, who chairs Building America’s Future, a group that advocates for infrastructure spending. “Infrastructure has always had bipartisan support. I think it is something that Republicans, if they do win [the House] could come together with Democrats on.”
But Christie showed just how tenuous that bipartisan commitment is in the current economic and political climate when he announced last week that New Jersey would no longer pay its share of the largest public works project in the country – a proposed rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey. Christie says that the tunnel’s cost – $8.7 billion a few months ago, but now $11 to $14 billion – are spinning out of control.
Christie charged that the escalating price tag for the tunnel would cost the state $2.5 billion more than expected, and he attacked the twenty-year old project as a waste of the taxpayer’s money. But he said Friday he would wait two weeks to make a final decision, after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and a plane load of federal officials flew to Trenton and told the governor that New Jersey would lose $3 billion in federal funding if the tunnel project is shelved.
“I think it was pure politics, and now he’s thinking about it,” said Rendell, who will be joined at the White House by Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, the mayors of Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and five other cites, along with three former transportation secretaries.
On Labor Day weekend, Obama proposed $50 billion in new spending for transportation projects, including public-private partnerships through an infrastructure bank that was designed to appeal to Republicans.
Unlike other Obama proposals, he included a funding source – tax increases that the White House called “closing loopholes” for oil and gas companies – and he made it clear that he would wait until the new Congress to move forward.
Although Republicans complain about government spending, many of them have had a soft spot in the past if it’s for infrastructure -- they passed a record-sized transportation bill after seizing Congress in 1994.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who would be chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in a GOP House, is trying to pass a six-year spending bill that would cost an estimated $450 billion. Like Democrats, he argues that the country badly needs to modernize its transportation network.
Rendell said that infrastructure was also good politics for Democrats in the midterm home stretch.
“This is government spending that people can see and touch and use every day,” he said.
But Christie’s move to kill the tunnel project captures a shift in public attitudes, and perhaps in Republican views on a traditionally popular kind of spending.
In a background briefing with reporters Sunday, a group of senior administration officials said that polls consistently show that the public supports new investments in road, rails and airports, as they have for decades.
Yet a Rasmussen poll, taken after Obama’s Labor Day weekend announcement of the $50 billion spending push, indicated that this public support has wilted under trillion dollar deficits and the sour economy.
Sixty-one percent of the likely voters polled said that they believed that more jobs would be created by spending cuts and deficit reduction – which happens to be the agenda of Christie and Republican leaders in Congress. Only 28 percent said the president’s infrastructure plan would be more effective at creating jobs.
Forty percent said the president’s program was better than doing nothing about jobs, but 47 percent said it was better not to spend the money.
In the weekend briefing, a senior administration official said that the infrastructure plan would appeal to Republicans much as initiatives to benefit small business often do.
But Republicans this year voted almost unanimously against Obama’s package of tax cuts and loans for small businesses, objecting to the way the costs would be offset in the budget. And top Republicans weren’t very bipartisan in greeting Obama’s $50 billion infrastructure plan in September.
“After the administration pledged that a trillion dollars in borrowed stimulus money would create 4 million jobs and keep the unemployment rate under 8 percent…the administration wants to do it again, this time with higher taxes for even more new spending,” said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Jeff Shane, a former Transportation Dept. official in the Bush administration, said there was still a reserve of bipartisanship among Republicans on the transportation committees, and he was hopeful that politics would not swamp this good will.
“I think there is a willingness [among Republican lawmakers] to see these as investments and not expenditures,” he said.
Even if Republicans choose to exclude infrastructure from their assault on spending next year, traditional conflicts between Democrats and Republicans on such funding are trouble enough, and evident in the move by Christie to kill the tunnel project.
Like most Republicans, Christie favors spending on roads, and he expressed concern that the cost overrun for a mass transit project – of the kind favored by Democrats – would rob his Treasury of toll collections that must be shared between roads and rail.