Oberstar Is Man of the Hour in Infrastructure Debate

Posted July 23, 2008 at 4:13pm

When the Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed in Minneapolis last August, killing 13 people, it represented a clarion call for home-state Democratic Rep. James Oberstar.

Aging roads and bridges “are being stretched to the limit of their design life and beyond,” he said at a hearing last month that highlighted the billions of dollars needed to modernize the infrastructure systems on which the U.S. economy depends.

As chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Oberstar is uniquely suited to shape the unfolding debate over infrastructure investment and transportation policies that will culminate with next year’s massive reauthorization of federal transportation policy.

Observers say he’s taking it seriously, not least because it will produce the climactic legislation of his long career in transportation policy.

With the bridge collapse and increased interest in alternative modes of travel resulting from record-high gasoline prices, transportation advocates say reauthorization couldn’t come at a better time.

“This is really a critical juncture,” said David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, a new coalition of industry, local government officials and environmentalists pressing for greater investment in infrastructure and wholesale reform of federal transportation policies. “Everybody believes we’re at a pivotal moment where change is necessary and possible.”

The coalition’s creation — as well as last month’s launch of a similar effort linked to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and labor groups, with whom Oberstar has close ties from his labor-heavy district in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range — underscores the stakes in next year’s reauthorization of the $286 billion transportation law passed in 2005 as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU.

Goldberg said members of the broad coalition, which includes the National Association of Realtors and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are looking to Oberstar and others to avoid a repeat of the 2005 transportation debate, when the resulting law became weighed down by more than 6,000 earmarks, including the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” — an Alaska bridge pushed by members of the delegation that served few beneficiaries.

“The last one was a travesty,” he said. “It became a pork fest with no national goals.”

Sources in Minnesota who have watched Oberstar over the years describe him as thoughtful, deliberate, transparent and someone who does not seek the media spotlight — a workhorse rather than a showhorse. This contrasts with the crafters of the previous two highway bills — former Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) — both of whom were larger-than-life characters.

“As long as I’ve known him, he’s been quiet but very strategic,” said Blois Olson, a Democratic consultant in the Twin Cities. “He lays out a map of what he wants to do, begins to pull people close to him, and then adds the pieces to get it there. He does his homework and knows the votes going in, and he never fires off a letter or holds a hearing unless he has been deeply angered.”

This is not to say that Oberstar is immune from flexing the powers of his position. “Jim Oberstar is Minnesota’s transportation sugar daddy,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. “He combines a deep knowledge of the transportation issues with old-school political smarts and toughness.”

In an interview last week, Oberstar said his committee has already launched hearings on the current law “to review how it works, what works, and what needs fixing,” with an eye toward moving a reauthorization bill early in the 111th Congress. SAFETEA-LU expires Sept. 30, 2009.

Guiding his deliberations will be two principles: a “very focused and very refined effort on safety” to help reduce the 43,000 annual traffic fatalities blamed in part on poor roads; and boosting “intermodal” or multiple transportation methods such as aviation, highway and rail.

While both issues have been addressed in past highway bills, they have typically been overshadowed by the sheer amount of money devoted to laying asphalt in lawmakers’ home districts. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is easily Congress’ largest, primarily because of its members’ ability to shape the highway network back home, creating jobs and opportunities for economic growth.

The intermodal transportation program Oberstar envisions would “bring all the modes together and get the best we can out of all of them, to enhance mobility and productivity in our system.” He’ll then turn to the thornier issue of financing it.

In a landmark report released earlier this year, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission recommended increasing the current 18-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax that funds highway improvements by 25 cents to 40 cents a gallon over five years. The hike would be used to fund the $225 billion annually the commission said would be necessary for 50 years to upgrade aging infrastructure.

Oberstar said it’s too early to decide what impact current high gasoline prices could have on the financing debate, but he said the Highway Trust Fund would continue to be the “cornerstone” funding mechanism.

“I think the public understands the relationship between the highway user fee and the drivability of the road network in America and mobility and productivity,” he said.

Nonetheless, he said a national outreach effort may be necessary during the reauthorization debate “to reinforce that long- standing principle.”

An avid cyclist who estimates he’s ridden 2,400 miles each year for the past 10 years, Oberstar said he’s also weighing new options for promoting cycling in the transportation bill.

“This I can say: An investment of $3.5 billion over the last 15 years building nearly 40,000 lane miles of bicycling facilities … has produced an outpouring of bicycle use,” he said.