Obama touts $379 billion transport plan

US President Barack Obama (centre) and Secretary of Transportaion Anthony Foxx (right) tour the Metro Transit Light Rail Operations and Maintenance Facility in St Paul, Minnesota, on Feb 26, 2014. President Barack Obama on Wednesday unveiled a four y
US President Barack Obama (centre) and Secretary of Transportaion Anthony Foxx (right) tour the Metro Transit Light Rail Operations and Maintenance Facility in St Paul, Minnesota, on Feb 26, 2014. President Barack Obama on Wednesday unveiled a four year, US$300 billion (S$379 billion) plan to rebuild America's highways, bridges and rail systems, hoping to defy gridlock in Congress to enact major reform.  -- PHOTO: AFP

ST PAUL, United States (AFP) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday unveiled a four year, US$300 billion (S$379 billion) plan to rebuild America's highways, bridges and rail systems, hoping to defy gridlock in Congress to enact major reform. 

Mr Obama's initiative marked his latest attempt to animate his second term, even though hopes of big political change are already dimming as Washington fixates on November's congressional elections.

The plan would replace a current transportation funding bill which expires in September.

It prioritizes infrastructure improvements, a goal Mr Obama has pushed for years but with limited success amid skepticism among Republicans in Congress.

The president traveled to the midwestern state of Minnesota and a renovated train depot in the city of St Paul which has been closed for decades but was restored and will now serve as a hub for buses, light rail and trains.

Mr Obama's plan, to be detailed in his budget due to be released next week, is billed as a way to overhaul creaking transportation networks and to support hundreds of thousands of jobs.

"One of the fastest and best ways to create new jobs is by rebuilding America's infrastructure," Mr Obama said.

"We have got a lot of work to do out there and we have got to put our folks to work," Mr Obama said, warning that America's economic rivals were seeking to outcompete his country by rebuilding their own infrastructure.

The president proposed partly funding the plan with a $150 billion dollar windfall from revamped business taxes in a massive overhaul of the US tax code.

However, few observers believe that reform will make it through Congress in mid-term election year, leaving the fate of his transportation initiative in doubt.

His Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx warned that Congress must start working with the administration on a new bill, or risk pushing the United States over a "transportation cliff" if funding expires later this year.

Obama's plan would replenish the Highway Trust Fund, which is used to repair and maintain roads and is financed by federal diesel and gasoline taxes.

It would send money to other road repair projects and invest in light rail and other systems in growing American cities in a bid to ease traffic congestion and cut commute times.

It would also expand a national freight program designed to improve business and manufacturing competitiveness using road, rail and ports.

In a sign of his determination to use his executive power at a time when rival lawmakers are blocking most of his agenda, Obama also announced $600 million to fund new grants to fund projects on road, rail and port projects.

So far in his presidency, the so-called TIGER grant program has doled out US$3.5 billion to 270 projects in all 50 states.

The initial grants were included in a US$800 billion stimulus plan introduced by Mr Obama in his first year in office when the US economy teetered on the edge of a depression.

The stimulus is often lambasted by Republicans as a massive waste of money - but Mr Obama on Wednesday insisted it "actually worked - despite what everybody claims."

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