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US House speaker promotes transportation projects

Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – U.S. House Speaker John Boehner spoke in favor Monday of pumping federal money into transportation construction and speeding regulatory review of those projects – comments that seemed to resonate in a region longing for new bridges to ease traffic snarls.

Boehner drew sustained applause from a crowd at the University of Louisville as the Republican speaker from Ohio touted transportation construction as a place where a fractious Congress could reach common ground in trying to jump-start job growth.

“Everybody believes we have infrastructure deficiencies and more needs to be spent to repair, replace and in some cases build new infrastructure,” Boehner said in a speech that focused on the sluggish economy and persistent unemployment.

“The problem is nobody wants to pay for it.”

Boehner did not specifically mention the region’s bridge problems, but spoke broadly about transportation needs in his speech as part of the McConnell Center’s fall lecture series at the university. Boehner shared the stage with his fellow congressional Republican leader, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who welcomed Boehner to his alma mater.

Many Louisville and southern Indiana commuters are dealing with long delays caused by the closure of the Sherman Minton Bridge.

The nearly 50-year-old steel span connecting Louisville and New Albany, Ind., along Interstate 64 will stay shut for repairs lasting several more months as workers fix cracks in the double-decker bridge.

The bridge closure has intensified the push for a more ambitious project to build two new Ohio River bridges in the area. The proposal includes a new span in downtown Louisville and one in eastern Jefferson County, Ky.

Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez has said federal officials are prepared to expedite the approval process for the additional bridges that have been in the planning stage for years.

Upriver, President Barack Obama visited in September drew attention to the outdated and overcrowded Brent Spence Bridge that connects Cincinnati and the northern Kentucky suburbs. The aging span is another key national artery for commerce.

Boehner said Monday that top House Republicans are looking for revenue to help cover the nation’s transportation construction needs. One recurring problem, he said, is that federal highway funds have been siphoned for dozens of programs, noting that “we have beautified everything under the sun.”

“We have frittered away more highway tax dollars than you could ever imagine,” the speaker said. “If we’re going to find the revenue, we’re going to clean up this mess so that money truly does get to the kind of projects that we all expect.”

House Republicans are pitching a transportation construction plan that would spend about $285 billion over six years, touting it as a major jobs bill. Republicans haven’t specified yet where they will find the funds to make up as much as a $100 billion shortfall between gas tax and other transportation tax revenues and what they are proposing to spend.

Boehner said Monday that one way to drive down the cost of transportation construction is to reduce the time for regulatory reviews.

“Why do we need to spend five or 10 years going through all the regulatory nightmare that it takes to build a new bridge,” he asked to long applause. “Why can’t we streamline the process so we can get the projects started and done?”

Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, who represents Louisville, applauded Boehner’s support for infrastructure spending, but said congressional Republicans have blocked Obama’s plan to pay for the projects – a surcharge on income exceeding $1 million.

“It’s one thing to say we’re for it, but when you’re not willing to raise the money to do it – that’s where they’ve been,” Yarmuth said.

In his speech, Boehner called for Congress to find common ground on jobs and the economy despite ideological differences that have tied the institution in knots.

“My message today is simple: Faith in government has never been high, but it doesn’t have to be this low,” he said.

The speaker said that changes to popular entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security are necessary to effectively cut into the nation’s massive debt. Boehner offered no specifics but said small changes could have a big impact in coming decades.

“Everyone knows that we can’t solve the debt crisis without making structural changes to our entitlement programs,” he said. “If we don’t make these changes, the programs won’t be there for your generation when you need them.”

Boehner also offered examples of how easing regulatory oversight could help bolster various sectors of the economy.

Yarmuth said that Boehner’s plea for congressional Republicans and Democrats to find common ground on economic issues comes after months in which GOP members have been unwilling “to give up one inch on any policy matter.”

“What you saw today was indicative of the Republican Party today, which is a party that has no ideas for dealing with the serious challenges that we have as a country,” Yarmuth said.

Associated Press Writer Brett Barrouquere in Louisville also contributed to this report.

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