Oberstar wants a highway bill; White House wants a short-term fix

| 6/18/2009

Members of Congress have vowed to get a six-year transportation authorization bill on the House floor during the summer, but the White House has a different plan in mind.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, released a blueprint Thursday, June 17, calling for a $500 billion authorization bill to be introduced in July.

Oberstar’s proposal calls for $337 billion for highways, $100 billion for public transit and $50 billion for high-speed rail plus $13 billion for other programs.

“This proposal charts a new path for transportation,” Oberstar stated.

The bill would consolidate the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 108 current programs under four new categories with an emphasis on priority and quick turnaround times. The bill would also create a federal infrastructure bank that would lend money for transportation at low rates.

Oberstar – along with the T&I Committee’s ranking Republican, John Mica of Florida – said they will introduce the bill in July and begin committee markups as early as next week. Joining them in the introduction will be fellow committee members Peter DeFazio, D-OR, and John J. Duncan, R-TN.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood grabbed the spotlight on Wednesday by calling on Congress to postpone a long-term authorization bill and instead pass a short-term extension of current funding mechanisms.

“I am proposing an immediate 18-month highway reauthorization that will replenish the Highway Trust Fund,” LaHood said in a statement. “If this step is not taken the trust fund will run out of money as soon as late August and states will be in danger of losing the vital transportation funding they need and expect.”

LaHood also reiterated the administration’s disdain for raising fuel taxes. Most of all, LaHood is asking lawmakers not to rush through with a long-term fix.

“We should work together on a full reauthorization that best meets the demands of the country. The first step is making sure that the Highway Trust Fund is solvent,” he said. “The next step is addressing our transportation priorities over the long term.”

LaHood’s statements drew support from key senators working on their version of federal transportation legislation.

Oberstar, on the other hand, still believes a $500 billion authorization bill could pass by October – but only if everyone comes to the table.

“We are open to negotiation with the White House, but they have to come across the divide and talk to us,” Oberstar told reporters on Thursday.

“We are not in the business of delay. You’ve had enough of that in your transportation experience. It’s time to put an end to it.”

– By David Tanner, staff writer