WILMINGTON - After surprising diners at a roadside eatery, President Obama stood before the closed I-495 bridge Thursday and called on Congress to provide long-term support for infrastructure improvements.
The president also announced a new initiative at the U.S. Department of Transportation to promote private-sector investment in the country's infrastructure. Efforts will include a program to match developers and investors with state and local government projects.
"We know that in the 21st century economy, businesses are going to set up shops wherever they find the best roads, the best bridges," Obama said.
Obama said he supports a proposed short-term fix for the Highway Trust Fund, which is set to run out of funding. But he said long-term solutions and planning are needed for transportation projects, especially as the United States lags behind countries like Russia and China in infrastructure investments.
"If Washington were working the way it's supposed to, Congress would be creating jobs right now," Obama said.
House Speaker John Boehner's spokesman responded by saying the House passed a highway bill this week, and blaming 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."
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. Earlier this week, the White House released a report that highlights the long-term economic benefits of infrastructure improvements.
The bridge on I-495 in Wilmington was closed in June after an inspection found that support columns were tilting out of place. The bridge is undergoing emergency repairs, requiring the estimated 90,000 drivers who crossed it daily to seek alternate routes.
Before the appearance, Obama surprised the lunchtime crowd inside the Charcoal Pit, a burger and shakes joint on Route 202, shaking hands, holding babies and offering fist bumps to customers.
"That looks like a big shake," he said to children sharing a milkshake at one table.
"Me and Joe share shakes all the time," he told them, referring to Vice President Biden.
Pat Grim, 67, of Newark, Del., said she decided to come for a burger after taking a friend to the doctor this morning. She did not expect to meet the president. She said she told Obama she has met Biden many times and "partied with him." She teaches ballroom dancing at the University of Delaware.
To a young boy who got nervous and hesitated speaking to the president, Obama said: "I know. It's nerve-racking running into the president."
One young girl, who looked to be about 4 years old, asked for a hug and jumped into the president's arms.
Obama then sat down to eat with Tanei Benjamin. Benjamin wrote to Obama last year about her struggles as a single working mother of a daughter who is now 6 years old. After reading her story, the president sent a note to his senior staff that said "this is the person we're working for."
Benjamin, seated in a back corner booth, stood to hug Obama with tears in her eyes. Obama ate a pit special, a cheeseburger and fries.