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In Cleveland, Biden urges infrastructure spending

CLEVELAND (AP) — President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are traveling the country saying the nation needs to invest billions of federal dollars in highways and bridges, but some Ohio city officials are left to wonder: Where's the money to fix our streets?

Biden-Infrastructure Sidd

Vice President Joe Biden speaks on infrastructure investment, Wednesday, May 14, 2014, at the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority in Cleveland. Biden stressed the importance of the U.S. spending money on infrastructure to keep roads and bridges safe. (AP Photo)

Making the pitch Wednesday at a rail car repair shop in Cleveland, Biden said such investment is necessary for the United States to remain a pre-eminent economic force.

"Those in Congress who lack vision say we can't afford to make these investments," he said. "How can we not afford to make these investments?"

He said one study shows the U.S. needs $3.6 trillion in infrastructure investment by 2020 but spends only 1 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure and ranks 18th in the world for the quality of its roads.

Biden was in Cleveland to highlight federal investment in a $17.5 million new light rail station that will open in 2015. The president was in New York City, where the federal government has provided a $1.6 billion loan to rebuild the Tappan Zee Bridge. Their message is that more money needs to be spent on infrastructure.

In response, Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short issued a statement Wednesday that said the Obama administration should stop what he called its obstruction of the Keystone XL pipeline, "which has bipartisan support and would create good-paying Ohio jobs."

City officials in Ohio wish that a small share of those billions would trickle down to them for maintenance. Some Ohio cities are operating on the thinnest of margins as costs rise, tax receipts fall and state funding is reduced. Federal and state governments pay the lion's share of big road and interstate projects, but routine maintenance of surface streets is typically left to cities to pay.

Police and firefighters must continue to be paid, so budget items like street resurfacing are the first to be trimmed, said Paul Barnett, public works manager for the city of Akron.

Akron will spend about $2 million on street resurfacing this year but needs to spend at least $8 million to keep pace, Barnett said. The city will resurface only 11 of its 2,400 lane miles this year.

"It's OK if you plan on resurfacing your streets once every 30 years," he said.

The booming city of Columbus will spend $33.5 million on street resurfacing this year. Cleveland will spend $4.4 million. Toledo has upped its resurfacing budget to $1 million compared with $600,000 in 2013.

Still, Columbus is far from immune from the scourge of tire-crunching potholes that appeared like dandelions this spring thanks to Ohio's weather extremes, heavy rains and the asphalt-chewing phenomenon of freeze-thaw cycles. Bill Tilton, assistant director of public service for Columbus, said his crews have already repaired 105,000 potholes this year compared with 117,000 for all of 2013.

Toledo bought a machine so workers could replace entire stretches of pothole-pocked roadway, said Dave Welch, Toledo's commissioner of streets, bridges and harbor. "There are roads that are pothole patch after pothole patch," Welch said

The inability to properly maintain streets is a problem in smaller cities as well. In Euclid, a suburb east of Cleveland that stretches along Lake Erie, Mayor Bill Cervenik said the federal government needs to step in.

"I certainly believe the federal government has to take a look at communities like ours and understand the problems we're having and put together policies that help those communities that are built and aging and fix them," Cervenik said.

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