President Barack Obama in a St. Paul speech on Wednesday praised Minnesota leaders for developing a light-rail line soon to be launched into service in the Twin Cities, saying the project was a model for the nation as a job-creating example of modern transit.
Obama made his remarks at downtown St. Paul's recently renovated Union Depot, now set to be a modern multi-use transportation hub serving light-rail trains, passenger trains, taxis, buses and bicyclists. The president said he had a chance before the speech to check out the "spiffy" new light-rail trains.
"This project symbolizes what is possible," Obama told a friendly crowd of about 1,200 Wednesday afternoon.
Obama has been traveling the nation sounding a variety of economic themes, and his St. Paul stop was an effort to goad Congress into approving a new $302 billion transportation reauthorization bill, the current version of which expires at the end of September.
Obama said the bill will create a surge of new spending on transportation and infrastructure projects in the next four years, with a goal of boosting middle-class employment and creating a burst of investment in the nation’s aging road and rail systems. He joked that the nation had 100,000 bridges that were old enough to qualify for Medicare.
"We've got to put folks back to work," Obama said.
Congressional lawmakers are eyeing a Sept. 30 deadline to renew the transportation legislation, which has some governors nervous about planning projects that would run well into the fall. Obama expects pushback from Republicans, but he said transportation projects shouldn't be a partisan issue.
"Everybody uses roads. Everybody uses airports," Obama said.
Obama said he planned to submit a budget to Congress next week, including his request for the transportation infrastructure, saying that such projects both create jobs and keep America moving.
Obama also called for a $600 million transportation grant competition, dubbed TIGER grants, which the White House says also leverages money from the private sector and state and local governments to spark investments that create jobs and strengthen infrastructure. In five years, the grant competition has funneled $3.5 billion to 270 projects nationwide, including $35 million to the $243 million Union Depot renovation, completed in December 2012.
Obama was introduced by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, a North Carolina native who Obama said had turned to him and announced that this was the coldest he had ever been – even though they were only outdoors a minute, which drew laughs from the crowd. (Obama had reportedly left for Minnesota with no coat, but was wearing a topcoat by time he stepped onto a windswept tarmac here.)
Obama also praised Minnesota's Olympians, specifically giving a shout-out to the town of Warroad for sending several generations of hockey players to the Olympic games.
"It's not shocking that Minnesota might be good at the Winter Olympics," Obama said.
The chairman of Minnesota's Republican party, Keith Downey, noted that a handful of Democrats up for re-election did not attend the speech.
Downey issued a statement suggesting Democrats such as Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken feel vulnerable in their races and chose not to appear alongside a president whose popularity has been declining in the state.
According to the Associated Press, Franken says a previous commitment prevented him from attending Obama's speech. Dayton is recovering from hip surgery.