HOUSTON — Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday praised this city’s effort to turn greener — by harnessing millions of dollars in public and private funds to build parks and paths to connect them — and suggested that Houston could be a model for other cities looking to attract new businesses by bolstering residents’ quality of life.
“Nothing has occurred quite like what you’re doing here,” said Biden, speaking alongside Mayor Annise Parker at a pavilion atop a grassy plateau at Buffalo Bayou Park, which is undergoing a multimillion-dollar effort to connect walkways and trails parkwide.
"Cities that thrive are about connecting neighborhoods,” Biden said. “And your vision, Madame Mayor, is one of the visions shared by the president and me and our administration.”
Houston, perhaps most known around the world as an energy and industrial juggernaut, is in the middle of a green-tinged makeover that has included beautifying public spaces with parks and making it easier to walk and bike to them. Biden praised these quality-of-life efforts, saying they have coaxed more workers into moving here, and urged other cities to emulate Houston.
“All these things you’re doing are about improving productivity,” he said. “We know the federal government is not the reason for it, but we hope we’ve been a catalyst for things like it.”
Biden touted the role of federal “Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery” grants in Houston’s efforts. Fourteen such grants, he said, totaled about $200 million for the city and leveraged far more in private investment.
“One of the things about transportation,” he said, “it’s not all about high-speed rail.”
The vice president planned to speak more about high-speed rail later Wednesday afternoon during a stop in Dallas with Mayor Mike Rawlings. An effort to build a high-speed train to connect Houston and Dallas continues to generate plenty of discussion and has attracted interest from French, Chinese and Japanese companies.
Biden has been making speeches around the country over the past year on the benefits of investing in infrastructure — highways, transit stations and other cement-and-steel projects. In a Houston stop last year, he discussed the importance of the city’s ports.
On Wednesday, he also used his Houston talk to scold Congress for allegedly taking its foot off the gas pedal on large-scale infrastructure investments. Particularly concerning, he said, was the failure by lawmakers to fund the federal highway bill and their efforts to eliminate the types of grants Houston is harnessing for its projects.
“Without investing in our entire system, I don’t know how we lead the world in the 21st century," Biden said, reminiscing about the American ambitions that built the Transcontinental Railroad, Erie Canal and Interstate Highway System.
He referenced the American Society of Civil Engineers' most recent “Infrastructure Report Card,” which handed the United States a D+ grade and suggested that it needed $2.6 trillion in investment by 2020 to accommodate the current pace of economic growth.
“This is an old chapter of our story. Build, build, build, and the world will come to us,” Biden said.
Though not the sexiest of political topics, infrastructure appears to be on the mind of plenty of Texans. In the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released last week, 10 percent of registered voters surveyed identified “decaying American Infrastructure” as top on their list of greatest threats to the United States.
After stopping in Dallas, Biden plans to attend a Democratic National Committee event in San Antonio on Wednesday night before heading back to Washington.
During his Houston stay, Biden said he met with leaders at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where his son Beau Biden received treatment for brain cancer before dying last May. The vice president said he learned the center would name a research chair for glioblastoma — the type of tumor Beau Biden appeared to have fought — after the former Delaware Attorney General.
Biden also said he met with former President George H.W. Bush, who, in a touching moment, reminded him of a time when “Democrats and Republicans liked one another.”
The 91-year-old Republican, who now uses a wheelchair, visited Biden’s hotel “just to say hello,” Biden said.
“That’s how it used to be,” Biden said. “We made a lot more progress when it was that way.”