While partisan divisions have always complicated public policy solutions, transportation funding has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support—until recently. In order to get America and Minnesota back on track and rebuild our infrastructure, policymakers must work together to close this public policy divide, according to former Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar in a recent speech at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Oberstar became a member of the U.S. House in 1975, and served until recently losing his seat in 2010. It would be an understatement to say that Oberstar played a substantial role in shaping American transportation policy. His advocacy was especially effective in the several years he served as the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
During his time in the House, he took part in many important bipartisan efforts to advance the country’s transportation. Towards the end of his House career, he witnessed an unraveling of that bipartisanship, accompanied by a rising popularity of putting one’s own district above all else.
Many states are considered ‘donor states’ with others known as ‘donee states’. Donor states give more money to the federal government in taxes than they receive in funding for things like transportation. Donee states, on the other hand, receive more funding than they pay in taxes. As Oberstar sees it, focusing on this distinction completely misses the point of a national transportation system. Minnesota is one of the top ten ‘donor’ states, but Oberstar pointed to his record of voting to improve congested areas of Chicago for freight that travels from the West Coast to the East Coast. The whole system is connected, which means that congested areas in one place affect every other place.
The short-sighted nature of what proponents call ‘state parity’ complements the new era of partisanship that Oberstar has seen invade the U.S. Congress, especially when it comes to the previously bipartisan issue of transportation. After recounting his bipartisan efforts in the House, Oberstar marked a shift that occurred when his conservative colleagues refused to cooperate on anything with a majority of Democratic support.
Oberstar summarized his opinion of this when he stated, “I have never seen a Democratic road or a Republican bridge.” Minnesota 2020 shares this view, and we have written many times about how infrastructure investment should not be a partisan issue. In a time when Minnesota’s Department of Transportation is projecting a 20-year $50 billion funding shortfall, it is crucial to maintain and improve our infrastructure.
Fortunately, some state entities understand this need. The Metropolitan Council’s 2030 Transportation Plan takes the focus away from even more highway expansion, and puts emphasis on optimizing our current infrastructure. The plan calls for increased Bus Rapid Transit links to the communities surrounding the suburbs. Buses in these routes would use a dedicated right-of-way, often with stations in the middle of the highway, which is being constructed for the Cedar Avenue corridor. In many cases, the dedicated right-of-way can be shared with other vehicles willing to pay to drive on a faster-flowing lane.
Governor Mark Dayton recently announced $400 million for maintaining our highways, not building new ones. This is a very good thing, because Minnesota has the fifth largest road system, and the Twin Cities has the third highest number of roads per capita, in the country. Furthermore, Minnesota’s freeways are reaching the end of their working lifetimes, and are going to be expensive to replace. Every dollar that we do not spend on preserving highways today will cost us $7 in five years, according to John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
All of these needs in our own state and across the country need bipartisan solutions, as well as new revenue. MnDOT is following the example of Oregon in studying a new vehicle-miles-traveled fee, and numerous organizations, including the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, have called for an increase in the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been increased—even for inflation—since 1993.
In Oberstar’s view, it is only a matter of political will to secure new revenue and give our infrastructure the investment it needs to succeed on a global scale. He concluded his speech with a quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Our real problem, then, is not our strength today; it is rather the vital necessity of action today to ensure our strength tomorrow.”