Not Even a Presidential Visit Will Speed Up Stalled Infrastructure Projects

Nov 3, 2011 6:00am

There is nothing like a giant, “structurally deficient” bridge standing prominently behind the presidential podium to drive home President Obama’s point that America’s infrastructure is crumbling and needs funding for repairs.

For the second time this year, Obama stood in front of an aging bridge Wednesday while urging Congress to pass funding for infrastructure projects.

But while such decaying transportation projects may provide the perfect backdrop to reinforce the president’s message, the commander-in-chief’s call for action does not necessarily move these restoration plans any closer to completion.

“With the Brent Spence Bridge, no, [the president's visit] is not having an effect on jumpstarting the project,” said Steve Faulkner, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Obama visited the bridge in late September to promote his American Jobs Act, which includes $50 billion in infrastructure investments. The act was voted down in both the House and the Senate last month.

But while the president may not come bearing funding and contracts, his nod of support may still be a step in the right direction.

“Probably what it’s done is given encouragement to local officials to push forward through very difficult regulatory structures and a challenging funding environment,” Brian Turmail, the spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, said of Obama’s visit to the Key Bridge Wednesday.

That White House hat tip of approval, though, does not necessarily have to come in the form of a physical visit.

“From the point of view of accelerating projects, the most important thing a president can do is order their administration to speed up the review of the project,” Turmail said.

Former President George W. Bush opted to show his support for infrastructure projects without leaving the Oval Office. In 2002, he signed an executive order requiring his administration to expedite environmental reviews of “high-priority” projects and promoted inter-agency communication to speed up the approval process.

As a result, projects that had been lost in within the federal bureaucracy for decades, such as the Intercounty Connector roadway in Maryland, are now nearing completion, said Turmail, who was a spokesman for the Department of Transportation during Bush’s presidency.

“There’s no doubt that when a president makes speeding up a project a priority for his administration that projects can, not always, but can be sped up,” he said.

One such success story was Bush’s effort to restore the iconic cable cars that run through downtown New Orleans and which were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

During a trip to the hurricane-ravaged French Quarter in September 2005, Bush vowed that “the street cars will once again rumble down St. Charles, and the passionate soul of a great city will return.”

Slightly more than a year later, the former president saw that promise come true.

“Today, we hail the arrival of the day the president spoke of,” said James Simpson, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration in December 2006. “A few minutes from now, the streetcars’ familiar sounds will return to St. Charles Avenue for the first time since Katrina hit … heralding to the world the resilience of this city.”

But of course, not all presidential visits end in ribbon-cutting ceremonies. The most recent example of a presidential pet project gone awry is the Solyndra solar company. President Obama toured the facility in May 2010 while promoting his push for green jobs.

The company, which received $500 million in government loan guarantees, declared bankruptcy in August.

“Hindsight is always 20/20,” Obama told “Good Morning America” anchor George Stephanopoulos last month. “It went through the regular review process and people felt that it was a good bet.”

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