Minnesota Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar is leading a public and bitter inter-party battle with President Barack Obama over the administration’s recently announced plan to delay for 18 months or more the consideration of a new six-year federal surface-transportation act. This critical legislation establishes national policy, priorities, federal funding schedules and revenue mechanisms for highways, transit, rail and a myriad of related issues. The current law, passed in 2005 after multiple congressional delays over two years, is set to expire this September.
Oberstar, who heads the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is right to challenge the president’s indefensible plan for delay. Obama came to power with a promise to change the way Washington works. The administration’s transportation plan, however, is déjà vu for states across the country whose highway and transit capital improvement programs were crippled by Congress’ transportation sputtering and inaction from 2003 through 2005.
Oberstar is using increasingly strong language to criticize the Obama administration. At a June 18 news conference, at which Oberstar announced his committee would push ahead to pass an estimated $500 billion bill by this September in defiance of the administration’s position, Oberstar said, “Delay is unacceptable. If we delay the new authorization, states will hold back on new projects and that will cost jobs.”
DeFazio shares Oberstar’s concerns
Fellow Democrat Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, chair of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, echoed Oberstar’s concern, stating, “This 18-month delay will be an incredible disservice to the people of America.” Four days later, in the National Journal Online, Oberstar and DeFazio were even more pointed, stating jointly, “The administration wants an 18-month delay because it has no plan to meet our transportation challenges.”
The stakes are high for states, local units of government, contractors, consulting engineers, shippers and – most important – citizen travelers and commuters. The federal government is a major funding partner for highway, local road, bridge and transit projects, generally providing between 50 to 80 percent or more of project funds. As in any business or endeavor, when your major funding partner becomes unreliable and unpredictable, the impacts are severe.
A March 2009 Federal Highway Administration report on the impacts of the 2003-05 reauthorization delay concluded, “(T)he TEA-21 extensions and 680-day delay leading up to SAFETEA-LU’s passage had a significant effect on delivery of the surface transportation program in states nationwide. … These delays eventually drive up the costs of delivering transportation projects.” A 2003 report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials projected that congressional delay in transportation reauthorization at that time would cost $2.1 billion in project delays and 90,000 jobs.
Ripple effects in Minnesota
In Minnesota, for example, the 2003-05 delay was the root cause of the costly one-year delay of the $288 million I-35W/Crosstown Commons reconstruction project. (In the face of federal inaction, Mn/DOT attempted to keep the Crosstown project on schedule with a unique public/private partnership contract that was rejected by contractors.)
Reauthorization delay was also partially responsible for the cancellation of the I-494/Hwy. 169 interchange reconstruction, a top regional congestion reduction project for which replacement funding has yet to be found. For transit projects like Hiawatha LRT and Northstar Commuter Rail, the state and local government partners scrambled to cover for uncertain federal funding in order to avoid project delays and cost increases due to inflation and unplanned finance charges.
While Mn/DOT and local governments managed through the 2003-05 federal debacle with fewer project casualties than many counterparts nationwide, recovery from the ripple impacts to capital improvement programs has taken several years. The Obama administration’s current plan for reauthorization delay will almost certainly have negative impacts across the country similar to those experienced in 2003-05, and there is no guarantee that the impacts on projects and jobs here in Minnesota won’t be more severe than they were six years ago.
States, local governments and transportation advocates across the country are strongly rooting for Oberstar and his like-minded responsible colleagues. Let’s hope Oberstar’s is not a mere quixotic quest to have Congress and the administration complete substantial and meaningful transportation work in a timely fashion.
Bob McFarlin is vice president of Corporate, Community and Public Affairs at Weber Shandwick in Bloomington. He served as assistant commissioner for policy and public affairs at the Minnesota Department of Transportation from 2003-2008 and as acting Mn/DOT commissioner in 2008. He currently serves as vice chair of the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Committee.