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King of the Road

Oberstar Talks Trains, Planes, Highways and Bicycles

Rep. James Oberstar is an unapologetic supporter of more spending for transportation projects, which he sees as a boost to the economy in the long and short run. After 12 years as ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Oberstar now controls the gavel and intends to use it to bolster the country’s infrastructure.

Oberstar sat down with Roll Call Executive Editor Morton M. Kondracke last week to discuss the highway trust fund, a gas tax holiday, Amtrak and the FAA. But it is a minor part of the transportation grid — biking — that Oberstar is often associated with. The 73-year-old lawmaker is a dedicated rider and has put that enthusiasm into action by calling for more bicycle-friendly policies. He rides about 200 miles a month.

ROLL CALL EXECUTIVE EDITOR MORTON M. KONDRACKE: Everybody’s concerned about raging gasoline prices and oil prices. How has this affected our infrastructure planning?

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: It hasn’t affected anything yet because we’re not enacting any policy, but it’s shaping policy. I wonder if there had been such a spike in gas prices whether there would have been the political will in 1956 to establish the Highway Trust Fund and the user fee. I think so, because we were at a juncture then in this country where if we didn’t do something about our surface transportation, we’d be killing 100,000 people on the nation’s roads. And congestion was in those days as bad, if not worse, than it is today. We made the decision to forge ahead to do something new and big and grand with a plan. Today, our challenge is to maintain that well-executed plan, to invest not only in its maintenance but in expansion of and growth of new capacity, and to create new modes of transportation that will move people and goods. Now the question is, what is the viability of the highway user fee, with all the forces that are coming to bear on it? The immediate challenge is that we may well run a $2.5 billion to $3 billion gap in the Highway Trust Fund because …

ROLL CALL: Because people are driving less and therefore contributing less to the trust fund?

OBERSTAR: Yes, and perhaps more due to the inflation of construction costs. Steel is rapidly escalating in cost. Construction in China and India is affecting the price of concrete. The aggregate cost of asphalt has gone up threefold in the last year and a half.

ROLL CALL: So how do you make the shortfall up this year?

OBERSTAR: We have some general revenue contributions, and I think Sen. [Max] Baucus [D-Mont.] and Sen. [Chuck] Grassley [R-Iowa] had a grand idea. They want to recoup the $1.5 billion to $2 billion that has come out of the Highway Trust Fund for emergency purposes — for hurricanes, for floods, for tornadoes, other disasters that have caused pressure on the highway construction program.

ROLL CALL: The National Surface Transportation Policy and Review Study Commission recommended that we spend $225 billion to $340 billion a year on transportation infrastructure. What do we currently spend?

OBERSTAR: $75 billion at all levels.

ROLL CALL: So, how do we make up that gap, or don’t we?

OBERSTAR: That was the subject of a hearing June 10 in our committee — prioritizing our needs, nationalizing the needs and generating revenues from a variety of sources. There are public-private partnerships — as one witness today called them, business deals. Don’t give them fancy titles, they’re business deals. But they should be business deals that create new capacity, not just squeeze revenue out of existing capacity. There are tax-exempt bonds, tax-credit bonds, municipal bonds, state infrastructure banks, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. There is a pending proposal for national infrastructure banks that go beyond highways and water and waterways.

ROLL CALL: How does that national infrastructure bank work? Is it a capital budget?

OBERSTAR: Well, there are several iterations of it. That’s what we were exploring. But the key to it would be establishing an evaluation and rating system prioritizing the needs and doing so with clarity, with transparency, with independence of evaluation that will generate public confidence in the process. It ought to be a governmental entity but not an agency of government. I spoke to the 27 ministers of transport of the European Union on May 5 of this year. They didn’t invite our secretary of Transportation, they invited me. The EU has a 10-year transportation investment plan. It is all laid out — 30 projects. Each of them is specifically identified by revenue source and structure and time frame, with a background explanation of how they were evaluated. We need a similar concept. We need a plan. They will have a waterways connecting all the way from the English Channel to the Black Sea. Now, is there anywhere in America that we’ve developed a plan, except the interstate highway program in 1956? There hasn’t been that kind of planning and we need to do that. We have to think inter-modely — how we connect highways to transit systems. And there are many iterations of transit systems — rapid bus, local bus service, streetcar and circulator systems, light rail and commuter rail. And we need all of those to move people effectively.

ROLL CALL: Let me ask one short-term question. Given the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund what do you make of the idea of having a gas tax holiday this year?

OBERSTAR: You know, it’s the most hare-brained scheme I could think of. Absolutely, utterly lacking in substance, thought or integrity. No one could seriously propose such a scheme. Take it out of one pocket, put it into the other. Most of the ones I saw was just taking money out of the trust fund and handing it over to people without any guarantee that prices would go down. In fact, if you recall in 1995 the newly established Republican Congress forgot to extend the airline ticket tax for about five or six months. Ticket prices didn’t go down. They stayed the same. The difference was pocketed by the airlines. And later, we had shortfalls in the AIP, the Airport Improvement Program, the construction program. … I was just astonished that anyone, a serious contender for president, would propose something like that. That’s so irresponsible it’s beyond my interpretation.

ROLL CALL: Another immediate consideration — we may be in a recession. You proposed that infrastructure development be part of a stimulus package. It wasn’t part of the first stimulus package. Might it be part of a subsequent stimulus package, and if so, how do you answer the objection that it takes time to get these programs up and running?

OBERSTAR: That’s the age-old argument against infrastructure — that it takes too long and the people are still working long after the recession has passed. Well is there anything wrong with that? Fundamentally, that’s not true. Our committee surveyed AASHTO — American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. They produced a list of 2,640 projects that could be under construction within 90 days of getting the go-ahead. Then we would fund those, about $5 billion worth, out of the Highway Trust Fund with 100 percent federal funding and require the states to pay back the 20 percent over a period of time. And then, the same with the Aviation Trust Fund — I think, roughly $3 billion. Again, prioritized, listed, no intervention by Congress, by the executive branch. And then, through the state infrastructure revolving loan fund for water, sewer and sewage treatment facilities, do the same. And Amtrak, about $3 billion in projects that we know Amtrak always lists. Fifteen billion dollars would generate 770,000-plus jobs and have people working by the end of the summer if that were implemented today.

ROLL CALL: What are the prospects if there is a second stimulus package for getting this done?

OBERSTAR: The Speaker has repeatedly said we want to include this type of investment job-creating program in a subsequent stimulus package. When that will happen, I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re going to have an appropriations process this year. Just an extension of continuing resolution.

ROLL CALL: So the chances of it actually happening this year are not very great, to have a major infrastructure stimulus?

OBERSTAR: I think the realities are, you know, what’s happening in the Senate. They’ve had 81 filibusters already. You’re not likely to get anything moving.

ROLL CALL: Let me switch to air travel. What are the prospects for an FAA reauthorization bill this year?

OBERSTAR: To be very candid with you, little. The Senate has not been able to get their bills to the floor. They’re tangled up over a whole host of internal issues. Sen. Baucus had a great idea. He wanted to include filling the hole in the Highway Trust Fund with an amendment to the aviation bill, and other things happened, and it’s all been scrapped — so, we’re now talking about an extension of current law.

ROLL CALL: Which means that airport delays and long spells on the tarmac without toilets and stuff like that, all that continues?

OBERSTAR: Well, that would continue whether we enacted the bill tomorrow or not because its implementation would take months. But we do have a consumer bill of rights provision that we’re proposing to separately include in the extension of current law. But there are some elements that we would like to add — perhaps [Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter] DeFazio’s no cell phone use on airplanes. The European Union has moved in the international aircraft association to allow cell phone use continuously on board airplanes.

ROLL CALL: Do cell phones interfere with the electronics or not?

OBERSTAR: There is some evidence that they do, but I don’t think it’s overwhelming evidence. I think that’s more a nuisance factor than an electronic interference. But who knows? Those electronics on board aircrafts are so sensitive. I certainly think there’s a valid argument against BlackBerrys. If you use your BlackBerry, put it up to a microphone, it will pick the sound wave up. Mine in my car when I’m driving home at night, it interferes with National Public Radio. Whether it’s sending or receiving, it’s emitting a signal that gets caught up into the radio. So there could be interference with radio waves and you don’t want that to happen on board an airplane. There’s no place to pull over at 30,000 feet in the air and look under the hood.

ROLL CALL: Let me go to one of your favorite subjects, bicycling. When the next big highway bill comes along, is it your plan to increase the amount of aid that we supply to communities to build bicycle paths?

OBERSTAR: They’re the most popular thing. Every group I talk to, the first thing they want to tell to me about, whether it’s their bridge, their highway or transit system, “and we have a bicycle path, and we have bicycle lanes and this is so important to us.” It has created tourism opportunities; it has generated economic benefits for the communities. People love them. It’s a lifestyle-healthy feature of our transportation system. So, we’re going to continue the access to the Highway Trust Fund for bicycling facilities. I think we’ll increase the funding for safe routes to school. We’ll take the lessons learned from the nonmotorized transportation pilot projects, the four that are compiling now the results of their experience over the last three and a half years, and incorporate those experiences in beneficial ways into our transportation system. We should do this. We have to do this.

ROLL CALL: And is bicycling a high-gas-price alternative transportation method? I mean, can you really see commuting? People are not going to travel from Woodbridge, Va., to Washington, D.C., on a bicycle.

OBERSTAR: They might travel to the train station, though, on their bike, if we give them a good, safe, secure place to store their bike. And in Munster, Germany, 48 percent of all trips for all purposes, a city of 250,000, are by bicycle. They give bicycles a 20-foot head start at intersections and a 20-second head start at traffic signals. And 30 percent of all trips for all purposes in the Netherlands are by bicycle.

ROLL CALL: You’re 73 years old, and you bike how many miles?

OBERSTAR: Well, last year I did 2,000. Last night, I sat down and went back over my records for the past 10 years and averaged 2,400 miles a year over the last decade bicycling. And that comes out to about 200 miles a month. More in the summer, less in the winter. Winter miles are indoors on my resistance trainer for fitness. I’m way behind this year because I had two operations, one on my neck to repair damage from an old bicycling injury from 20 years ago and the other for a congested hip. That’s kind of like the nation’s transportation, congested. It needed scouring out and replacements. So, I’ve got a cobalt chrome socket and a cobalt chrome ball fused to a titanium rod powered into the femur.

ROLL CALL: And you’ve been bicycling ever since you were a kid?

OBERSTAR: And it’s a 45-year hip! I bicycled as a lad. In the winter — we had a pretty sizable basement — I’d pedal around the basement in the winter months. I started bicycling again when my now-late wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy and chemotherapy and radiation and all, and a doctor friends of ours had said that bicycling was a way for her to recoup and regain her energy. That was in 1983. We bought bikes for the two of us and our two older children, and after a time it just became too much of a strain for her to continue. But I kept occasionally cycling and then after she succumbed to breast cancer in July of ’91, I was run down, I looked up in the garage, I saw the bike said “I’m going to take a ride.” By the end of the year, July to December, I put 1,100 miles on the bike. I felt better. I felt invigorated. My oldest daughter is now a triathlete and my son bicycles to work and takes his daughter to school on the bike.

ROLL CALL: One last question. Will we ever see a day when we truly have high-speed rail transportation between Washington, D.C., and Boston? It seems to me that if the Japanese can have a bullet train and the Chinese can have Maglev, why can’t we have faster transportation than Amtrak?

OBERSTAR: We’re taking that step with the authorization of Amtrak for the first time since ’97. Taking Amtrak off the starvation budget for the last dozen years or so, certainly the last six and a half years of this administration, where in one budget proposed that, to bankrupt Amtrak. But when you ask the question will we get truly high speed, 184 miles an hour, as the Shinkansen travels, or as the TGV, which in some quarters is well up to 200 miles an hour …

ROLL CALL: TGV is where?

OBERSTAR: In France — Train à Grande Vitesse. And you can travel from Beijing to Shanghai this summer on 220-mile-an-hour steel, on steel rail. That’s the distance roughly Boston to Richmond in four hours. And, as I said to the European ministers, I guarantee you that Amtrak gets 135 miles an hour for three minutes. The goal of this Amtrak authorization bill is to complete the task to rebuild those two tunnels — Baltimore and New York — which necessarily must be done for safety and security purposes. And replace the catenaries, the overhead wire, that on a hot day would sag three or four feet. In a place for 100 years, the heat causes the metal to sag. There are technologies that are available. They need to do that. But we can achieve two-hour travel between New York and Washington, D.C. Amtrak, even moving as slowly as it does in comparison to other world-class systems, has 56 percent of the passenger traffic in the corridor and 43 percent between New York and Boston, and is growing at a rate of about 13 percent on the West Coast corridor in California. So, if we make these investments — the Northeast corridor, the Midwest rail initiative, the southern tier from Orlando, say, to New Orleans, Chicago south to New Orleans, the former Empire Builder line in the Pacific Northwest, southern tier lines, improve the California corridor. They already have a high-speed rail organization, the California government, and we just need to stimulate it. We’ll get there.

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