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Oberstar waiting for green light as U conference urges reform of nation's obsolete transportation system

With the health care debate sucking all the oxygen out of Washington these days, the task of reforming the nation's obsolete transportation system has been pushed to the back burner — and nearly off the stove.

No one's more frustrated about that than U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn. As chairman of the House transportation committee, he expected last year's Democratic sweep to supercharge his plans for a major update of the road and transit network. Instead he's been stuck at a red light … waiting.

"I never anticipated having this much difficulty with a Democratic administration," Oberstar said of President Barack Obama's reluctance to push ahead. "I thought that with 'yes we can' and 'change you can believe in' they would embrace the ideas I've set forth, especially after two national commissions recommended that we invest $450 billion in transportation. I thought it would be a breeze, but it's been a frustration."

The current transportation law expired in September with Congress stymied on how to proceed on a new six-year bill. The key question is how to pay for the massive fix-up during a deep recession. Obama has resisted raising the federal gasoline tax, and other revenue approaches are just as tricky.


Oberstar's two-part strategy
In response, Oberstar has divided his strategy: a two-year jobs/infrastructure bill that he intends to advance next month with the aim of front-loading the spending to further stimulate the economy, followed next year by a four-year reinvestment with major changes in how Americans pay for mobility.

A conference on Monday at the University of Minnesota provided a good opportunity to reflect on the nation's transportation dilemma.

Rep. Jim Oberstar
Rep. Jim Oberstar

In a nutshell, the infrastructure is crumbling and needs massive reinvestment. The Interstate highway era, begun more than 50 years ago, is nearing an end. Current funding streams are unable to maintain the system, let alone add to it. Transportation policy itself is adrift, lacking clear goals and measurable results. Given current funding constraints, smarter, more focused spending is needed. Of special importance is linking transportation investment to problems of climate and energy security. Only by building a cleaner, more energy-efficient transportation system can the United States compete with nations that are moving ahead, largely because of their greater tolerance for taxation.

Monday's conference centered on a report called "Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy," produced by the Bipartisan Policy Center. The center was founded in 2007 by four retired senators: Democrats Tom Daschle and George Mitchell and Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker.

"You're apparently only able to join in a bipartisan way when you're retired," Brian Atwood, dean of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, told the crowd at the U. Former Rep. Martin Olav Sabo of Minneapolis helped produce the report and headlined the U event.

Sharp focus recommended
The report calls for significant change in the way transportation is considered and funded. The federal government, it says, should start by setting clear goals for its role, sharply focusing its investment on transportation that promotes:

• economic growth

• national connectivity

• metropolitan accessibility

• energy security and environmental protection

• safety

Washington does not now pursue those objectives clearly, the report says. Instead, it spreads money as widely as possible (via earmarks) without measuring and evaluation results. (That's a polite way of saying that Congress wastes a lot of money on projects inconsequential to the national interest rather than focusing on spending that would bring the greatest national return.)

Former Rep. Martin Sabo
Former Rep. Martin Sabo

The report emphasizes measuring the performance of investments. If, for example, the goal is to offset climate change and foreign oil dependence, then projects that reduce carbon emissions and gasoline consumption should get priority.

Funding formulas should be overhauled to reflect national goals, the report says. Current formulas provide "perverse incentives" to waste fuel and emit carbons, for example, whereas new formulas should be geared to do the opposite.

More attention to metro areas
The report emphasizes maintaining and improving the current system while adding capacity through a series of competitive grants. Metropolitan areas — the main generators of national wealth — get as much attention as states in the funding mix. Mode neutrality is emphasized as a way to ensure that the most efficient means of travel — whether auto, train or bus — is rewarded, depending on local conditions.

The report notes that the current system is skewed by an artificially low gasoline tax that fails to reflect the true cost of driving. The result is that "millions of individuals and businesses are making transportation decisions that are inefficient from a societal standpoint every day."

Joshua Schank, research director for the project, described Oberstar's approach to the transportation problem as similar — except that Oberstar would measure performance after an investment is made, while the this project proposes that performance be projected as a condition for getting the money. That way state and local governments would have an incentive to adjust their laws and policies to match the national goals. For example, Minneapolis-St. Paul's chances of getting money for a new light rail line would increase if the cities offered incentives for locating homes and jobs near the line.

Land use and transportation policy
Tying those kinds of land-use policies to future transportation investments was a hot topic among some participants. Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, urged caution in "getting ahead of market forces." Met Council Chairman Peter Bell, also a Republican, said his agency, despite its role in planning and operating the transit system, "has no role in planning economic development." Bell added, "We should stick to our knitting."

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin chuckled at the notion that planning highways or transit lines could be somehow separated from the economic activity generated nearby. His greatest concern about the report was that it expected transit investments to pay off too quickly. "We build these things for the long haul," he said, "largely to benefit future generations."

Minneapolis real-estate developer Michael Lander said that, whatever changes are made in funding formulas, builders should not be penalized for high-density projects that induce traffic congestion. It's congestion and high-density, he said, that prompts people to begin using cleaner forms of transportation as an alternative.

Schrank agreed that reducing the need for transportation was perhaps the cleanest, most efficient form of all. Finding ways to locate daily activities in proximity (mixed-use communities) might be the best performance-driven transportation solution of all, he said.

Indeed, nearly all transportation discussion focuses on the supply side — improving ways to move around. Reducing demand by promoting compact living patterns is, by contrast, a new frontier.

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Comments (7)

Holberg's remark, "getting ahead of market forces" is laughable. Markets are undergirded by infrastructure. Development occurs where the infrastructure is. The places with reliable roads, power, sewers, etc. find business grows there. Places without those things don't have growth. The reason infrastructure has to come first is simple: the payoff is so long term and so diffuse, that no one in an unregulated market is going to try it. That's why when we do find business building and operating infrastructure, they have a government-granted monopoly. That's why you'll never see a startup water works where there's already water.

This seems so obvious to the point of being intuitive, how to freemarketers not get this?

So I say good for Oberstar.

Transportation should be considered a matter of national security and kabillions of dollars transferred from ever-new/ever-more high-tech weapons systems to transportation: roads, highways, bridges, railroads, everything.

Good article. If you ever want to see wasteful transportation spending travel the lonely 4 lane from Aberdeen SD to the MN border on Highway 12.

Man, It just plain continues to amaze me how these republicans like Bell and Holberg can be so dense. They just don't believe in the concept of public policy unless it's about trying to control "values". I keep waiting for a republican (who's not retired) to make an interesting or insightful comment about something and it just doesn't happen. Market forces? Knitting? seriously beam me up Scotty.

"Reducing demand by promoting compact living patterns" is also a way to good health--more people walking. My daughter, a health care executive, says attention to our environment is the best way to reduce health care costs--especially those linked to obesity. So transportation policy should also be thought of as health policy--get people out of cars, onto their feet, including children, whose early habits often last a lifetime.

Steve, the O administration is on the verge of awarding $8B of 2009 stimulus money for high-speed rail service in 5-15 regions of the country. The Midwest will get an unknown share -- partly because states/regions have submitted grant requests exceeding $50B. Did this come up at the conference?

There are several fundamental flaws in the way our government approach transportation systems. First, funding should be based on usage, ie. weight + miles driven (pay as you go). It's not the 2000 lb. econo-boxes that are wearing out our roads...or causing the congestion. Second, start applying funding to the problem based on science not politics. If you want to see how a good model works look at the major railroads; they split their investment between maintenance and expansion, and in that priority. Adding a dime here or a dime there to the gasoline tax will not save this country from another bridge failure. Folks whine about the cost of the proposed health care legislation; wait until they see the bill to replace failing highway infrastructure, $850b is just the tip of the iceberg.