Rep. James Oberstar (Dem-Minn.) is about to leave the House after serving 17 terms representing the 8th Congressional District of Minnesota. He's spent 15 years as the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, with two terms as chairman. Oberstar has presided over or participated in some of the biggest highway and transportation bills in recent memory. But his vision for a transformative, nearly $500 billion surface transportation authorization bill was dashed when Congress couldn't agree on how to fund the ambitious bill earlier this year. Transportation Nation Washington Correspondent Todd Zwillich sat down with Oberstar in his Capitol Hill office to talk about the Congress and the future of transportation funding in an age of budget austerity.
"In the stimulus, the $34 billion we were allocated for highway and transit resulted in resurfacing and rebuilding 35,411 lane-miles of highway nationwide. That’s equal to ¾ of the entire state highway program. Yet that represents 4 percent of the state of good repair needs of our national highway system. Four percent!"
Todd Zwillich: Congressman James Oberstar of Minnesota. Thanks for being with us.
Rep. James Oberstar: My privilege and pleasure to be on the program with you.
TZ: I wanted to start with some transportation issues, of course since you have had your tenure as Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. You tried to achieve an ambitious surface transportation bill. It did not come to pass. … left undone, what do you think is the most critical transportation issue facing this country?
JO: A long term authorization for the surface transportation programs of the nation: highway, bridge, transit, highway safety. And the livability issues that have become such a centerpiece for transportation over the past dozen plus years, since the end of the interstate era and the beginning of a new era for transportation. Livability is foremost in people’s minds. Passing a long-term, six year authorization would give stability to the states, to the contractor community, to building trades, labor, to the transit sector, it will result in—if we pass the $450 billion bill—six million construction jobs over the next six years. It will give states the ability to bring our existing portfolio of highway projects up to a state of good repair and go beyond with major rebuild projects such as the Brent-Spence bridge between Ohio and Kentucky, which carries 3 percent of the GDP of the nation. It would allow Oregon to complete its work on a whole stretch of bridges that were sub-standard on Interstate 5 on the West Coast.
"This is the transportation bill of the future that we need. A funding mechanism for it is essential, that’s where it foundered. President Obama said that he could not support an increase in the user fee, the gas tax, which three Republican presidents have supported: Eisenhower, President Reagan, and President George Bush the first."
There are many other instances I can provide of major rebuild projects that are long term, create stability in the construction sector, but add to our GNP and ability to move goods and people more efficiently. This is the transportation bill of the future that we need. A funding mechanism for it is essential, that’s where it foundered. President Obama said that he could not support an increase in the user fee, the gas tax, which three Republican presidents have supported: Eisenhower, President Reagan, and President George Bush the first.
But the reluctance to
move ahead with an increase in the user fee caused a stall in this legislation. We were ready to bring it out, to restructure the Department of Transportation to create an Office of Project Expediting so that we move short term projects, state of good repair, that take three years. We can do that in three months! We oughta do that.
TZ: I had a chat with Norm Mineta last week. Who has a similar vision to yours… He feels, given the fiscal condition of the nation right now, … this country is essentially going to do maintenance for the next two to four years …
JO: I think that’s a fair estimate. If you don’t do the long term authorization bill, if you don’t restructure the Department, if you don’t pass the authority to do bigger projects, then we will continue to do state of good repair.
In the stimulus the $34 billion we were allocated for highway and transit resulted in resurfacing and rebuilding 35,411 lane-miles of highway nationwide. That’s equal to ¾ of the entire state highway program. Yet that represents 4 percent of the state of good repair needs of our national highway system. Four percent! There’s a huge need in the country to make roads drivable, safer, more efficient, less wear and tear on the vehicle. But if you don’t provide the funding for the longer term authorization then only these short term very narrowly tailored projects—grinding down the surface, filling the potholes, putting a one or two inch overlay—is all that there is money to do. That’s not in the best national interest.
TZ: Now going forward republicans who are taking control of the House have pledge to avoid earmarks … can healthy transportation infrastructure survive in this country? How does it proceed without traditional earmarking?
JO: For 30 years of the interstate highway program and the primary, secondary, and rural programs there were no earmarks. There were no individual project designations. Because the funding worked well. The mechanism was functioning properly the interstate highway system was being built. As it neared its completion, the needs of the non-interstate system grew and were not being addressed by states. And citizens began appealing to their member of Congress for fixing this, that or another road or bridge. So Members say we are the ones who vote for the taxes, we’re the ones who vote for the authorization, we do 100 percent of that, the states do 20 percent and they are not addressing the needs. So we are going to designate projects that serve the needs of our constituents who have appealed to us for this help.
In the current transportation bill, I refine the process to require of each member that neither he, nor his/her spouse has personal or family financial interest in the project, that there is a local sponsor who has expressed in writing their support for the project, and third, this local sponsor can vouch for the 20 percent non-federal match. We’ve cleaned up this process so it is open, transparent, on the web …
TZ: Except the next regime is doing away with it entirely.
JO: They're going to do away with it entirely, that’s their problem. Let’s see if they can pass a bill.
Will the next Congress trust to the executive branch agencies to respond to the needs of their people if they want to do that. And if the state DOTs are responsive then maybe it can work. It did for a long time, but it didn’t beginning in the mid-80s.
TZ: I want to make sure I can get a Minnesota question in on transportation. Central Corridor light rail is a project you’ve championed in the past. The funding environment that is coming … can that project thrive and survive?
JO: The funds are available under existing law to finance the Central Corridor project. They need to get underway with it. The Hiawatha light rail faced the same funding questions a decade ago. It was completed. It was successful. It achieved 10 million riders nine months ahead of schedule. I think the same will be true of the central corridor project.
TZ: You are still bullish on it?
JO: I think it has to be done to relieve congestion in the Twin Cities, you cannot build more lane miles of highway in the metropolitan area, Minneapolis-St. Paul, to move people efficiently and effectively without creating more gridlock in that environment.
Hiawatha has been a relief valve. North Star Corridor going up to the St. Cloud area in Central Minnesota has also been a relief valve. The Central Corridor will be the next critical step to improving mobility of people and of goods in the metro area.
TZ: Thank you.