The clock is ticking on America’s transportation spending bill, and the time has come to transform it into something that looks at how future generations are going to get around.
That was the message of Rep. Jim Oberstar Wednesday at a discussion put on by the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs as part of a series of visits from high-ranking political officials to discuss policy in the nation.
Oberstar, a Democrat representing Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, told a nearly full auditorium in the Humphrey Center that the nation’s six-year transportation funding bill will expire on Sept. 30, and the time is now to revamp it at a cost of $450 billion.
“We could be at the cusp of the first stem to stern rethinking of our transportation spending,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the Humphrey’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.
Oberstar, who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, projected a mind-map-like schematic that he drew out for a retiring politician years ago, spelling out the “Future of Transportation.”
“I drew this up one day, somehow it found its way onto the Internet and now they want to put it in the Smithsonian,” he said.
The schematic detailed how Oberstar thinks the transportation spending bill should change, including the creation of a national “intermobility council” that would oversee all the branches of transportation. Oberstar described the current system as various departments acting in a Stonehenge-esque way: solid but separate.
“We need to work together under a national program,” he said. This program would be more transparent, require annual benchmark requirements to Congress and post progress on the Web, he said.
Oberstar also wants to change the way the Federal Transit Administration is run, citing the 14-year time line of planning and building the slated Central Corridor light rail line. Oberstar said they will put in place a new system that could cut these projects down to three years from planning to operation.
In addition, he wants to create mobility centers throughout the states to reduce road congestion.
“We need to look over the horizon,” Oberstar said, adding that the bill should look forward and shape transportation for future generations.
The major problem: how to pay for such a transformation at an estimated cost of $450 billion, especially in the midst of a recession, Oberstar said.
He has ideas for that too, including updating Highway User Fees to accommodate the rising cost of construction supplies and applying fees to oil speculators.
Oberstar said his goal is to have his overhauled bill on the House floor sometime in September.
The long-time politician also dug into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus bill, and cited figures on how much money is being allocated to highway and transit projects across the nation. Currently, 59 percent of highway stimulus funds – or $20.3 billion – have been obligated to projects.
Oberstar said that state transportation departments have not complained about delays in receiving stimulus funds from the federal government, despite a report released by the Associated General Contractors of America last week that found that the stimulus was not moving quickly enough for its members.
While some states have been quick to get construction projects going with allocated funds, such as Wyoming, Oklahoma and Iowa, other states have moved alarmingly slow. Hawaii, Florida and South Carolina have done the worst at starting stimulus-related construction projects, Oberstar said, with less than 5 percent of stimulus dollars being spent in Florida and South Carolina.
Getting these projects going is important to the more than 1.6 million construction workers unemployed throughout the nation, Oberstar said.
“These are the jobs that … put kids in college,” he said. “These are the jobs we want back.”
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