Oberstar outlines $100 billion transportation-funding plan

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rep. James Oberstar and Appropriations Chairman David Obey are finalizing details on a $100 billion plan to fund highway and transit projects over the next two years, Oberstar confirmed today. The money could be approved as part of a stand-alone bill or, more likely, included in an expected bill that Democratic House leaders said would be aimed directly at creating jobs.

Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the money could start being used to fund 9,588 shovel-ready transportation projects (those that can break ground by the end of April 2010) totaling more than $69 billion. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which compiled the project report, said 116 such projects totaling $510 million were ready to start in Minnesota.

“This is evidence of state-of-good-repair projects that have been waiting on the shelf,” Oberstar said of the report. “If I had my druthers, $69 billion would be a nice down payment.”

This latest development comes as Oberstar’s six-year road, highway and mass transit funding bill looks likely to miss the latest deadline for approval. The previous surface transportation bill was due to sunset on Sept. 30, but federal funding for state and local projects has been maintained under stop-gap continuing resolutions, the latest of which is due to expire on Dec. 18.

The White House and three Senate committees backed an 18-month extension, which Oberstar blocked, saying it would only increase the deficit in the Highway Trust Fund while effectively delaying large transportation projects because state and local leaders wouldn’t be able to precisely determine how much federal funding they’d get.

Seven senior senators last month detailed another possible compromise in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In it, committee leaders who originally supported the 18-month extension urged the passage of a six-month extension and then “dedicate the time necessary to complete this important legislation.”

Oberstar said he would consider supporting an extension, so long as it was accompanied by a resolve to work on a long-term package, but that he would prefer a shorter one. His first choice, he said, would have been the White House and Senate backing his six-year funding bill months ago.

“We could have solved this by now,” he said.

Funding transportation projects beyond current levels remains a sticking point. Oberstar has advocated raising the national gas tax, which stands at a little more than 18 cents per gallon and hasn’t been raised since 1993, and is also looking at additional funding mechanisms beyond so-called “user fees.” Oberstar ally Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon said today he’d be willing to bond or borrow the money, and the Oberstar-Obey proposal will likely include a national infrastructure bank to help fund future projects.

White House officials, with the support of Senate leaders, have taken any gas tax hike off the table, citing the current recession. However, Republicans on the Transportation Committee have said they won’t back any plan, Oberstar-Obey included, that isn’t paid in full.

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