Obama started by addressing one of the major problems in the highway program, saying he will soon sign an Executive Order to speed up construction projects.
He then said: "But you need to fund these projects. Take the money we're no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home."
It remains to be seen what Congress will do with that idea, but since neither Obama nor Congress is willing to raise fuel taxes in this economic climate, the funding question remains the key question for reauthorization of the highway program.
The current program is funded through the end of March, operating on its eighth extension since the law expired in October of 2009.
That leaves a little more than two months for Congress to push legislation through a half-dozen separate committees, reconcile differences among the various pieces of an overall bill, hold floor votes, convene a House-Senate Conference to agree on a final bill, and send that measure to President Obama.
There's no official date for the House T&I Committee's mark-up of its five-year bill, but the expectation is that it will happen Feb. 2, according to several sources.
That bill will cover transportation policy and safety issues, but two other House Committees, Ways and Means and Natural Resources, must pass legislation concerning funding.
Ways and Means is responsible for taxes, and Natural Resources is involved because the House leadership wants to link funding for the bill to extraction of oil and natural gas from areas now closed to drilling. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said that fees levied on drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as expanded oil shale development, would provide a new revenue stream to the Highway Trust Fund.
Once these measures clear committee, they will have to be reconciled with each other and passed on the House floor.
In the Senate
Meanwhile, in the Senate, the Environment and Public Works Committee has passed a two-year transportation policy bill and the Commerce Committee has cleared a safety title for that measure.
But the Banking Committee must pass a measure covering the transit title of the legislation, and the Finance Committee must find between $12 billion and $15 billion to cover the funding gap between what's needed and what the Highway Trust Fund will produce.
There is no official word yet on how the Finance Committee will come up with the money. Among the possibilities that have been suggested: an additional tax on the oil barrel, a fee on import cargo containers, taking unspent dollars from other programs, such as the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund, or expanding oil and gas exploration in Alaska and the Outer Continental Shelf.
Differences over these pieces of legislation will have to be resolved before they can be taken up on the Senate floor, said Norma Krayem, a senior policy advisor at the Washington, D.C., legal services firm, Patton Boggs.
This will require, among other things, reconciliation between Republicans and Democrats over a provision in the Commerce Committee's safety bill that would create a national freight policy and infrastructure grant program. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the EPW Committee, supports the idea but Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas opposes it on grounds that it creates an unfunded discretionary grant program.
Once that's done and the Senate votes on its bill, the chambers will face the unenviable task of reconciling the Senate's two-year bill with the House's five-year bill.
There may not be enough time to get all this done before March 31, but Krayem thinks it may be possible to get the pieces in place for a final push by, say, June.
The alternative would be failure to pass what congressional leaders have described as "must-pass" legislation.
"I really think that the stars are aligning for both the House and Senate to finish what they need to finish to get a bill done this year," Krayem said. "Anything can happen along the way but rarely in this Congress have you seen such agreement between the Majority Leader and the Speaker on something that's considered a must-pass bill, especially in an election year."
There is considerable pressure on Congress to get this done.
National shipping interests will be on Capitol Hill next week on a "fly-in" to push Congress to act on highway reauthorization. The National Industrial Transportation League, the National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council and other groups will be taking their message to their Senators and Representatives Feb. 1.
John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, lauded President Obama for highlighting the highway issue in his State of the Union address.
"The president's words and recent actions by congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle give transportation proponents optimism that an agreement can be reached on a multiyear surface transportation reauthorization bill in the near future," Horsley said in a statement. "Passing one short-term extension after the other is not the answer."
American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves said he was heartened to hear Obama highlight the need for action on infrastructure.
"However, it was with little surprise that the president once again failed to commit to putting real, concrete sources of funding behind that rhetoric," Graves said in a statement.
"Right now the country doesn't need more empty promises and rhetoric about the importance of repairing roads and bridges as a way to put Americans back to work. What the country needs is money - money from real sources, not promises of private investment or redirected savings. While promises of speeding the construction process will help in the short term, in the long term, it still boils down to funding."