Federal Update
‘There is no free lunch’
Land Line takes your questions to Rep. Oberstar

By David Tanner
staff writer


Few lawmakers on Capitol Hill hold the sway of Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, when it comes to drafting the next “highway bill.”

Currently in his 17th term in the House of Representatives, Oberstar takes his chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee very seriously.

Since 2005, the U.S. has been operating under SAFETEA-LU, the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users. The act created policy that cleared the way for tolling, congestion pricing and public-private partnerships.

Truckers have plenty of questions about the funding reauthorization and how tolling, PPPs and other issues will play into the process. Land Line took those questions straight to Oberstar. Here are his answers.

Whose task is it to write the 2009 version of the transportation funding bill? In the House of Representatives, the responsibility rests largely with the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. In the Senate, three Committees hold jurisdiction: Environment and Public Works; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and Commerce, Science and Transportation.

How big a task will it be to write this bill? Creating a law of this magnitude is always a big undertaking. We’ve already begun a series of hearings focused on reauthorization that will outline our needs and help us better understand how what was authorized in SAFETEA-LU is working. Creating successful legislation will require hard work and cooperation between both houses of Congress and on both sides of the aisle. 

How will this bill differ from SAFETEA-LU? I believe we are on the cusp of a transformational era for our surface transportation policy, and we must be willing to examine and embrace new ideas to solve our problems. The new authorization must address growing concerns over passenger and freight congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and the safety of our aging infrastructure. We also have to determine the appropriate financing mechanisms that will allow us to make the investments necessary to keep our economy moving and to maintain our quality of life. These challenges will require a clear and innovative new vision.

What would you like to see happen to the Highway Trust Fund? The Highway Trust Fund is the cornerstone of our surface transportation system. It has served us well and we should work to preserve and strengthen it, while also being mindful of the future and considering all potential financing mechanisms. When making these choices, it is critical to retain a dedicated user fee that is invested back into the maintenance and improvement of our infrastructure.

What role will tolling, congestion pricing and PPPs play in the new bill? While there will be a role for these types of financing options, it is unrealistic to assume that they are the answer to all of our problems. Such options will play a limited role, but can’t prevent us from taking a comprehensive approach to addressing our infrastructure problems. If we are going to address the current crisis and ensure that the U.S. economy does not lose ground because of our failure to keep pace with our infrastructure needs, we must be intellectually honest with ourselves and develop a new vision and commitment to financing our needs.

What kind of tax increases or new taxes will be needed to pay for transportation in the future? The financing issue presents one of our biggest challenges, and will require political will and the ability to confront tough decisions. As the (National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study) Commission’s report acknowledges, there is no free lunch. Infrastructure is expensive, and getting more expensive all the time. But the investment we make comes back to us in good-paying American construction jobs, a stronger economy, safer infrastructure, and a higher standard of living. Our surface transportation system is the envy of the world, but in order to keep it that way, we must be willing to consider all financing options during the next authorization.

Who else has influence in the writing of the bill? We in Congress will be looking for input from the federal agencies, states, local governments, MPOs (metropolitan planning organizations), transportation advocates, the private sector, and our constituents in order to craft comprehensive legislation that will address the many needs of our surface transportation network. This legislation will have an impact on every American, so we hope for a broad range of voices and opinions to guide us in our decision-making.

What do you foresee as being the biggest hurdles involved in getting the legislation written and passed? Any time you work on legislation of this importance, you will have a number of competing ideas and goals. We face mounting challenges on every issue from rising construction costs to global climate change to worsening freight chokepoints. And we exist in an often divided political landscape. Our challenge is to provide the leadership and foster the cooperation that will allow us to create an effective and comprehensive surface transportation program.

How much stock will lawmakers place in the recent report by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission? I appreciate the hard work of the Commission, and the bold, innovative vision they crafted. I view their work as a foundation that will serve as the starting point in determining the programmatic and financing structure of the future surface transportation program. The recommendations in their report provide us with a framework from which to begin our discussions about the next authorization.

How much influence will the current, soon-to-be-past administration have in the crafting of the new bill? We will continue working with the current administration during their remaining time in office, but will be working largely with the incoming administration on the next bill. Due to the timing of the change of administrations, it will be critical that the Congress take the lead in debating and developing the next surface transportation authorization. LL