Stateline Story

Before Jobs Speech, Obama Pushes Highway Funding

In the final days leading up to his congressional speech tonight on job creation, President Obama has been trying to make the case that repairing the nation's roads and bridges would keep more than a million Americans employed. The president has repeatedly called on Congress to keep federal money flowing to the states through reauthorization of a highway bill that expires at the end of September.

"Allowing this bill to expire would be a disaster for our infrastructure and our economy," he argued in his most recent weekly radio address . "Right away, over 4,000 workers would be furloughed without pay. If it's delayed for just 10 days, we will lose nearly $1 billion in highway funding that we can never get back."

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a close Obama ally, joined the president in the Rose Garden last week to promote the need for a new transportation bill, notes The Associated Press . Labor unions, mayors and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also called for a renewal.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration released numbers showing job losses by state if the transportation law — and the federal gas tax that supports it — were to lapse. In the unlikely event that no federal program is approved for an entire year, the Department of Transportation predicted that 1.8 million jobs would be lost (by comparison, 14 million Americans are now unemployed ). New Hampshire would suffer the fewest lost jobs, less than 6,000; California would lose the most, more than 164,000.

Congressman John Mica, a Florida Republican who chairs the key House transportation committee, played down the prospect of a transportation shutdown, saying he would agree to one more short-term extension, which would be the eighth since the underlying legislation first expired in 2009. In a statement , Mica blamed Democrats for leaving "major transportation legislation in the ditch for more than a year."

As improbable as a shutdown is, state officials are keeping a wary eye on Congress to see whether Democrats and Republicans can bridge a wide philosophical gulf over the future of federal road funding. As Stateline explained last month, a House Republican plan would scale back the program, spending only what the federal gas tax can pay for on its own. A plan outlined by Senate Democrats would keep spending at current levels, even though that would require Congress to set aside extra money in addition to the gas-tax revenues.

Transportation is expected to be a key component of Obama's speech to Congress Thursday night, but the president has had a hard time selling infrastructure-related proposals in the past. He repeatedly has proposed establishing a national infrastructure bank, for example, but Congress has not shown much interest in the idea.