Seven Years After the Recovery Act: My Trip Up the Mississippi to Check in on America’s Communities’ Infrastructure

Vice President Joe Biden tours a dredging barge with Senator Bob Casey, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 16, 2014. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Seven years ago today, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

It represented the largest clean-energy investment in our nation’s history and the biggest public works project since the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.

And he put me in charge of getting it done.

It’s fitting, then, that today I’m heading to a region that’s been the economic heart of America for a long time to check in on how the projects we’ve invested in are going.

We’re going up the Mississippi River: From New Orleans to Memphis all the way up to St. Paul.

For well over two centuries, this region has connected agriculture with industrial power in the middle of America — with not only the rest of the nation, but the rest of the world, as well. I do not exaggerate when I say that the abundance and industry of this part of the nation is the primary reason we’ve grown from a handful of states and a few million people to 50 states and 300-plus million people.

Let’s take stock for a moment of exactly where we were back in 2009.

Before the President and I lowered our hands on the Bible on that cold January day seven years ago, we had already lost 820,000 jobs during that month alone.

Over the whole of what we’ve come to refer to as the Great Recession, nearly 9 million people lost their jobs. More than 5 million people lost their homes, and millions more lost their savings. Markets were crashing. Businesses were closing. Home values were plummeting. Foreclosures were skyrocketing.

On our first day in office, we were told that unless we did something, we’d lose millions more jobs. So we did something.

We enacted the Recovery Act — legislation designed, simply put, to save the economy from a depression and to save the middle class while investing in the industries that will drive economic growth in the future.

It was a mix of middle-class tax cuts; emergency relief to states to prevent layoffs of firefighters, police officers, and teachers, and cuts to vital services; and investments in the future — everything from education to health care to energy and infrastructure.

Here’s what I did when the President put me in charge of implementing it:

For months, I was regularly on the phone with mayors, governors, and other local leaders, making sure they had the resources they needed, making sure the Recovery Act was being implemented fairly, efficiently, and without waste.

That’s because none of these programs work simply by virtue of some announcement from on high from the federal government. They only work when you have governors and members of Congress who are on board — who believe in the work, and pay attention to the details.

I visited and monitored Recovery Act projects around the country — because I knew if we didn’t do it better than any program had done, our critics would say there was no sense in any further government investments in growing the economy, and we would never get a chance to do it again.

Everywhere I went, the main question I asked was this: How can these investments help rebuild our communities and our middle class?

Since then, I’m proud to say that this has been called the most successful economic recovery legislation since the New Deal. All told, it injected more than $800 billion into the economy. It brought tens of billions of dollars from private and local investors off the sidelines. And it was implemented wisely — considered one of the most efficiently administered economic programs in our history.

Now, our competitors in the European Union chose a different route: austerity. They chose not to inject a stimulus into their economies. Chose not to invest in industries that will drive long-term growth. And the results are in the numbers: According to the International Monetary Fund, the countries in the EU that limited their investments in this way saw their gross domestic product grow far less than the United States’ during that period.

Take a look at our numbers, seven years later. Unemployment is at less than half of its peak levels in 2009. Businesses have added more than 14 million private-sector jobs.

Consider our first stop on this trip: The city of New Orleans — a city that’s added more than 34,000 jobs since the Recovery Act was passed.

We’ve still got work to do, but here’s what’s going to help: Continuing to improve their port and broader infrastructure. Strategically located on the Mississippi River near six major rail lines and the Interstate Highway system, the port is responsible for helping to move American goods, and people, around the country and around the world. That is how we will continue to rebuild our economy. Not just in New Orleans — but around the country.

That’s exactly why we awarded the Port of New Orleans a $16.7 million grant through our TIGER program — a program created by the Recovery Act. Here’s what TIGER grants do: They allow mayors — the folks who know best what their communities need — to directly apply for transportation funding. They don’t have to go through a legislature or a governor.

This particular TIGER grant at the Port of New Orleans has actually made it possible to take more cargo off ships more quickly.

Back in 2004, when a ship came into this port, a given container would get put on the back of a truck, then taken over to a rail yard, or to another city on the highway. Today, at the Port of New Orleans, a container goes straight off the ship and onto a railcar, where it can move throughout the country.

That’s 160,000 additional twenty-foot containers that couldn’t get through before that are now passing through the port each year.

The cargo that moves through this port and makes its way around the country supports more than 380,000 jobs each year. It pumps more than $37 billion into the economy.

That is why this matters.

Later today, we’ll head up the river to the Crescent Corridor Intermodal Freight Rail Project outside Memphis, Tennessee, a project funded in part by a $105 million TIGER grant in 2010.

For this project, Norfolk Southern partnered with the various state and federal governments to construct a 2,500-mile national rail network, connecting the Port of New York and New Jersey with the Port of New Orleans, and all the states in between. It spans 13 states from New York to Louisiana and all told, will add 28 new daily trains into service while taking thousands of trucks (and their emissions) off the roads. A given container full of product will be able to get unloaded in New York, shipped in a rail car straight to Memphis, and sent directly into the market.

I can’t wait to see it.

Finally, we’ll continue north to the Union Depot Multi-Modal Transit and Transportation Hub right in the heart of St. Paul, Minnesota.

This is a renovation project funded in part by a $35 million TIGER grant — a catalytic investment in the restoration of a historic building that now serves as a light rail, Amtrak, and commuter bus hub. And it’s an anchor economic force for St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood. We’ve got a younger generation that wants to live in cities — and modern transportation hubs like this one will continue to attract them, and businesses.

I’m looking forward to taking a look at these projects that are literally not just stimulating local economic growth — but better connecting America, as well. I’ll be checking in with you with notes from the road along the way. And to make sure you see what I see, I’ll even be doing a few dispatches from the stops directly on my Facebook page.

All told, the Recovery Act didn’t just stop the bleeding of the Great Recession. It invested in the very programs and people that form the foundation of an economy that’s gone from crisis to recovery to resurgence. Those are investments we have continued to build on with every one of our budgets, including the one we released last week.

So this all isn’t just a walk down Memory Lane. It’s always been about investing for today, and for the future.

I say this a lot, and I truly believe it: We are by far better positioned than any nation in the world to command the economy of the 21st century. But it is absolutely critical that we continue to invest in infrastructure so we have what we’ve always had before — the most modern infrastructure in the world. It attracts business. It keeps business. And it creates a virtuous cycle — jobs in manufacturing and in factories, in the local diners, grocery stores and movie theaters.

That’s America.

Mark Twain once said this of the Mississippi River: He said it “is not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a story to tell every day.”

Folks, this is the oldest story in the history of the country: Build the most modern infrastructure in the world. And the world will come to us.

I’m looking forward to this trip, and I’m looking forward to bringing you along with me.

Stay tuned.

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