Obama pitches new ways to attract private investment for public-works projects

The Miami HeraldMarch 30, 2013 

MIAMI -- President Barack Obama traveled briefly to -- and under -- PortMiami on Friday afternoon to push for new ways to secure private dollars for big-ticket projects to renovate highways, bridges, pipes and schools.

Obama toured the port tunnel being built under Biscayne Bay and then praised the project as an example of the local, state and federal government working together, and with private companies, to grow the economy and create construction jobs.

"We still have too many ports that aren't equipped for today's world commerce," the president said. "We've still got too many rail lines that are too slow and clogged up. We've still got too many roads that are in disrepair, too many bridges that aren't safe."

Obama spoke to port workers, business people and politicians gathered at a cargo shipping area lined with containers. He began by noting the spring weather and addressing what he called a "sticky subject" -- basketball.

"I know you guys aren't happy with my Chicago Bulls," he said, as the crowd booed. "But I just want you to know the Heat are going to be just fine."

"The Hurricanes, they had a great season," he added. "Tonight you've got Florida and Florida Gulf Coast going at it ... So, let's face it, Florida is the center of basketball right now."

Then he turned to the matter at hand: infrastructure.

To promote more private investment in public projects, Obama proposed raising the caps on certain state and local bonds to lower project financing costs and making the bonds available to more types of projects; exempting foreign pension funds from taxes when they want to invest in U.S. infrastructure, as is already done for American pension funds, and spending an additional $4 billion for two programs that have provided loans and grants to projects.

In his State of the Union address last month, the president made public-works spending a crucial part of his economic agenda for the year, proposing spending $40 billion on fixes to aging roads and bridges. Republicans in Congress have opposed any new spending that grows the deficit and isn't accompanied paid for by tax cuts or other budget savings.

The White House did not say Friday of how Obama's latest proposals, which he called the "Partnership to Rebuild America," would be paid for, adding those details would be released next month as part of his budget. Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said they would not increase the deficit.

The president also renewed a proposal from his first term to create a $100 billion national infrastructure bank. Republicans dismissed the speech as "campaigning," calling on Obama to deliver a budget and send bills to Congress instead.

On Thursday, Republican Gov. Rick Scott called on Obama to reimburse the state for the $77 million Florida invested in the dredging, which will also be paid for by county funds. For years, the port lobbied the federal government unsuccessfully to contribute.

Carlos Buqueras, executive director of Port Manatee, was not planning to be in Miami for the president's visit, but he said the local port has not had a problem receiving federal funding.

"We have received a giant windfall already from the U.S. government through Tiger grants. We received over $12 million in grants, including money for two new energy-efficient locomotives, and if that isn't a giant windfall, I don't know what is," Buqueras said. "The federal government has been extremely supportive of infrastructure development funding and locomotives for Manatee County."

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