Collision course: Oberstar vs. White House on transportation spending

Rep. Jim Oberstar
Rep. Jim Oberstar

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rep. Jim Oberstar is heading toward a collision with the Obama administration as he begins revealing details today of a six-year, $500 billion transportation overhaul bill that the Minnesota Democrat wants signed into law before October.

Just yesterday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that while the administration also wants critical reforms, it would like to put the brakes on Oberstar’s massive revamp, essentially calling for an 18-month extension of the existing law.

But Oberstar, a senior House Democrat and powerful chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has remained undeterred by the administration, insistent that Congress must pass a new and transformative law before the current one expires on Sept. 31.

“Delay is unacceptable,” Oberstar said Wednesday. “Extension of time, extension of the current law is unacceptable. This is the moment to move.”

Simply put, the Surface Transportation Authorization Act would be the most ambitious revision of the nation’s transportation system in over 50 years, since the national highway system was first created. For Oberstar, who began his four-decade career as a lead staffer on the Transportation Committee (then the Committee on Public Works), the legislation would represent a crowning achievement.

Oberstar’s blueprint calls for an overarching National Transportation Strategic Plan that would highlight priority “megaprojects” around the country. For the first time, different modes of transportation — highway, rail, air and water — would be coordinated as one system in order to maximize efficiency. A new undersecretary would be appointed to oversee and organize the “intermodal” system and the different federal agencies that would be involved.

Big changes
The plan would also terminate more than 75 federal transportation programs, significantly boost funding for public transit, set aside roughly $50 billion for high-speed intercity rail, and impose annual reporting guidelines and project benchmarks on states.

“We get this passed… within two years we will make dramatic transformations in the way states manage their programs and the way funds are invested,” said Oberstar, adding, “the public will know what is happening with their dollars.”

In their blueprint (PDF), committee members argue that such a major change is required to fix a system that has not kept up with the country and now displays crippling and costly congestion, unnecessary carbon emissions and deteriorating highways and bridges that have led to many catastrophes, including the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge two years ago.

“Most observers agree that the current transportation program is broken and that wholesale change is needed,” said Robert Puentes, director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the left-leaning Brookings Institution.

To get there before October, however, Oberstar not only faces a resistant administration but also an obstacle course of competing legislation in Congress, including financial sector regulation, climate change and healthcare reform.

“Congress doesn’t even have the bandwidth to handle these issues let alone a transportation overhaul,” said Joshua Schank, director of transportation research at the National Transportation Policy Project. “Maybe we will be able to move something by next year, but even then it will be hard.”

Oberstar’s handwritten outline of transportation bill.

Click on graphics to enlarge



Click on graphics to enlarge

If history serves as an example, Schank could be right. The last transportation authorization was extended 12 times in two years before it finally became law in 2005.

This time, the transportation committee is asking for about a 38 percent increase above current spending levels at a time when there is less money and even more on the legislative agenda.

“I think it is going to be a very rich discussion, but there are a lot of challenges,” Puentes said. “The 900-pound elephant in the room is that there is no money.”

Low on funds
Indeed, the stream of money that currently flows to transportation projects around the country is expected to run dry for the second year in a row this summer.

Most of that money comes from the federal gasoline tax and a tax on truck sales. But the gasoline tax, which is 18.4 cents per gallon, has not been raised since 1993 and has lost about one-third of its purchasing power since then due to inflation.

Worsening returns further is the fact that Americans are driving less and opting for more fuel- efficient cars.

Just to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent, the federal government will have to inject it with $5 billion to $7 billion this summer, only a year after providing it with $8 billion.

On Wednesday, the administration proposed infusing the fund with an estimated $13 billion to $17 billion over the next 18 months

LaHood said in a statement: “…[W]ith the reality of our fiscal environment and the critical demand to address our infrastructure investments in a smarter, more focused approach, we should not rush legislation.”

But the administration’s fiscal patch is only a temporary solution.  No consensus has yet emerged on how to keep the fund solvent in the long term.

While Oberstar favors some form of a user fee, either through a possible increase of the gas tax or the implementation of a system that taxes how many miles a motorist travels, the task of writing the funding component for the legislation will ultimately fall to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Two congressionally mandated commissions have recommended increasing the gas tax. The most recent commission reported that a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax system would be the best long-term solution.

“We are putting nothing off the table at this point,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, who sits on the Transportation Committee and chairs the Highways, Transit and Pipelines Subcommittee.

At the same time, the administration has said that it does not currently support an increase in the gas tax.

“The administration opposes a gas tax increase during this challenging, recessionary period, which has hit consumers and businesses hard across our country,” LaHood said.

Oberstar has also acknowledged that more research and development needs to be done before a VMT system can be implemented.

Anxiety in Minnesota
In Minnesota, the uncertainty is causing heartburn for those who rely on federal dollars to keep people employed and projects moving.

“It is anxiety inducing,” said Serge Phillips, federal relations manager at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “If the fund runs out of money that will stop construction, people won’t get paid, and it will happen at the busiest part of the construction season.”

While the administration is not likely to let the fund run dry, Oberstar and DeFazio warned that temporary extensions of cash can still do long-term damage to the country’s transportation and infrastructure system.

For instance, DeFazio said that temporary extensions are likely “to diminish construction activity and cost us tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of jobs” because it will shift the emphasis from major new improvements to minor maintenance projects, which are already being done with stimulus dollars.

“You see a large drop-off in major projects with temporary extensions,” said DeFazio. “You can’t plan a two-year construction project if you’ve got 12 months guaranteed project… This bill needs to have a major projects emphasis, and you lose that if you go with the temporary extension. It would be very detrimental to the production of jobs and toward building a 21st century system if we went with the temporary program.”

Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 06/18/2009 - 12:37 pm.

    Why is the administration fighting against this well-thought-out plan that would, in the long run, improve both the efficiency and cost of our transportation system?

    The money is hiding right there in the Defense budget. If we give up the idea that we alone must be the world’s guarantor of peace, we can close all (or at least most) of the 750-plus military bases we maintain all around the world. Is not an effective transportation system more an aspect of national security than unworkable missile “defense” systems located where they will annoy Russia and Iran while adding overseas personnel to guard the missiles?

    We can take seriously the “Unified Security Budget for the United States” published annually by Foreign Policy in Focus. The executive summary for the 2009 report is at In it, authors Miriam Pemberton and Lawrence Korb note $61 billion in savings from military programs achievable WITHOUT harming national security that they identified with the help of a task force of experts.

    In addition $10 billion appropriated in previous years but not spent can be cancelled, and $65 billion can be reallocated from unneeded weapons systems to non-military security-promoting activities — “diplomacy, nonproliferation, foreign aid, peacekeeping and contributions to international organizations.”

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 06/19/2009 - 12:00 pm.

    B.V. you may very well be right buuut you are not an elected politician/representative. We have a slow system and the administration is trying to keep new programs revenue neutral, cutting is hard work.

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 06/19/2009 - 02:50 pm.

    Yes, Dan, but the people in Congress who review the administration’s budgets and make the changes they consider best for the country should be taking such information into consideration. Especially if the administration itself has not had time to really study alternatives before they issue proposed budgets.

    (I think the House Appropriations Committee actually did make some of the Defense Department budget changes recommended in the report. Maybe next year, they’ll be more willing to save money spent in better ways than, for example, the missile shield that the people of Poland and the Czech Republic do NOT want but whose leaders like U.S. money to flow into their economies.)

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