WASHINGTON — Giant questions await the next Congress over the future of the nation’s roads, rails and aviation. And for the first time since 1963, they’ll have to solve the problems without Jim Oberstar.
Oberstar held court Tuesday with a dozen reporters in the Transportation and Infrastructure’s opulent committee room. It was typical Oberstar, starting with a question on the future by launching into a dissertation on the history of his panel and legislation that built lighthouses and began what is now the Coast Guard.
“I come to the end of an era, ending where I started,” Oberstar said, noting that he was once a clerk for the Transportation Subcommittee on Rivers and Harbors, as it then was under then-chairman John Blatnik. Oberstar would succeed Blatnik in Congress in 1975 and go on to chair the panel he once staffed — the only member in Congress who has done that.
Indeed, Oberstar is leaving in a time of great uncertainty over the future. The Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road improvements, is running a deficit. The gas tax that feeds the fund isn’t enough to cover expenses.
- Almost every possible solution for making up that deficit, from increasing the gas tax to raising a separate fee out of the general fund to switching to more miles-driven odometer-reading system, has been ruled out by either the White House, the incoming Republican majority or all of the above.
- Those could have been solved in the surface transportation omnibus that cleared the T&I committee last year but has stalled ever since. Now, Florida Republican John Mica will be in charge of the bill.
- A potential ban on earmarks, if extended beyond the normal appropriations bill to transportation bills, could imperil projects that had been scheduled for federal dollars. The Central Corridor light rail line, for example, is counting on $45 million in funding that could be wiped out.
- A proposed high-speed rail line from Chicago to St. Paul is now highly unlikely after Wisconsin’s incoming Republican governor said he wouldn’t back the project through his state. “You can’t build a bridge over the whole state of Wisconsin,” Oberstar said.
- Major bills on aviation and water resources are also in progress but likely to die at the end of the year. Anything not passed by the House and Senate when the final gavel bangs on the 111th Congress is officially declared dead and must be reintroduced next session to start the process all over again.
All are issues Oberstar would have worked on as ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committeee that now he’ll watch from the sidelines.
If Oberstar can help it, he’ll be critically involved, but exactly how is a question yet to be determined. About the only decision made so far regarding his future is that he won’t be joining a lobbying firm. Beyond that, who knows?
“I want to be of service to transportation in the broadest possible terms,” Oberstar said. “I haven’t quite figured out what that’s going to be.”