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By Laura McCrystal, The Philadelphia Inquirer

WILMINGTON, Del. — While criticizing Congress for not passing a long-term transportation spending plan, President Barack Obama stood before the closed I-495 bridge Thursday and announced a new initiative to encourage private-sector investment in infrastructure.

“First-class infrastructure attracts investment and it creates first-class jobs,” Obama said. “Unfortunately right now, our investment in transportation lags behind a lot of other countries.”

The president’s push for transportation improvements comes as the federal Highway Trust Fund is set to run out of money. Obama has urged Congress to pass a $302 billion, four-year transportation spending plan that he proposed this spring.

The I-495 bridge, which served as the backdrop for Obama’s remarks, was closed in June because support columns were tilting out of place. It is undergoing federally funded emergency repairs, leaving the 90,000 vehicles that crossed it every day to seek alternate routes.

Countless other bridges are due for repair. Pennsylvania has the most structurally deficient bridges of any state — about 23 percent of its 25,000 spans are rated structurally deficient.

With $2 trillion in deferred maintenance costs for the country’s infrastructure, Obama said there is a great need for projects similar to the I-495 bridge repairs. Infrastructure improvements also create jobs and attract businesses, Obama said.

“If Washington were working the way it’s supposed to, Congress would be creating jobs right now,” he said.

Obama said he supports a short-term fix for the Highway Trust Fund that passed the House this week. But he said long-term solutions and planning are needed for transportation projects, especially as the United States lags behind countries such as Russia and China in infrastructure investments.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) criticized Obama’s trip to Delaware. His spokesman said the House has already passed a short-term highway bill and blamed Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate for inaction.

“As a leader of that party, he could work to break the Senate gridlock,” the spokesman, Michael Steel, said. “Instead he is giving a petulantly irrelevant speech.”

Before his remarks at the Port of Wilmington, Obama surprised lunchtime customers at the Charcoal Pit restaurant on Route 202. He held babies, shook hands, bumped fists, and told jokes about Vice President Joe Biden, who is from Delaware.

“Me and Joe share shakes all the time,” Obama told two children sharing a milkshake.

Pat Grim of Newark, Del., said she was shocked to see the president walk in as she ate lunch with a friend. The 67-year-old teaches ballroom dancing at the University of Delaware and said she told Obama that she has met Biden several times and “partied with him.”

After greeting diners, Obama sat in a corner booth to eat lunch with Tanei Benjamin, a single working mother who wrote to the president last year about her struggles. Benjamin had tears in her eyes as she stood to hug Obama.

The president ordered a “pit special” — a cheeseburger and fries — from the popular Delaware restaurant.

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons, a novel and a memoir. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

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