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 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. All the proposals would require congressional approval.
Republicans dismissed the speech as "campaigning," calling on Obama to deliver a budget and send bills to Congress instead.
"Speaking isn't leading. Crafting solutions is," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement.
In a Miami Herald op-ed piece Friday, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said the president should focus on policies to help small businesses.
"It's time to fix the nation's economy by putting the ball back in the hands of the real playmakers: the hardworking Americans that drive our private economy," Rubio wrote.
Obama's economic plan has been somewhat overshadowed with Washington fixated on guns, immigration and federal budget cuts known as the sequester. Some of the loudest applause for Obama on Friday came at the end of his remarks, when he pledged to fix the immigration system, improve schools and prevent gun violence.
Friday was Obama's first visit to South Florida since being re-elected in November. As he stepped off Air Force One, he was greeted on the tarmac of Miami International Airport by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Democratic U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens and Joe Garcia of Miami. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. A gaggle of other county, school board and state legislative officials were in the audience for the president's speech.
First, though, he stopped at the gaping mouth of the tunnel, which will allow cargo trucks to go directly from the port to the MacArthur Causeway, alleviating road congestion. The $1 billion tunnel is expected to be completed next year.
Obama took off his suit jacket and entered the tunnel with PortMiami Director Bill Johnson, the heads of the tunnel project and a union representative.
During his speech, he noted that private companies financed the design and construction of the project, and that all levels of government put money in.
"Everybody had some skin in the game," he said.
The president did not mention a planned $180 million port dredging to accommodate larger vessels after the widening of the Panama Canal. 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.
"While we're happy to host the president, we hoped to hear a commitment to reimburse Florida taxpayers the millions of dollars the state invested for the federal portion of port projects in Miami and Jacksonville," Scott said in a statement Friday. "In the meantime we will not wait on Washington."
The White House responded that the federal government provided a $340 million loan to help finance the tunnel project, and a $23 million grant to restore freight rail service between PortMiami and the Florida East Coast Railway.
Mayor Gimenez has repeatedly warned county commissioners that they should not count on federal money to finance other pending Miami-Dade projects. The county has drawn up a $1.5 billion plan to repair its antiquated, spill-plagued water-and-sewer system, under pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The causeway to Key Biscayne has been partly shut down as county administrators consider a more than $30 million rehabilitation of the Bear Cut and West bridges' corroding steel beams.
The White House said it could not provide an estimate of how many jobs might be created by the president's proposals, because that depends on private sector interest. "When it comes to good jobs, no workers were hammered harder by the recession than construction workers," he said.
Obama called on both parties in Congress to take action on his proposals.
"Building better roads and bridges and schools — that's not a partisan idea," he said.