Rep. James Oberstar, chair of the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had big plans for transportation in the nation, and in Minnesota in particular: a proposed high-speed rail line from St. Paul to Chicago and a high speed rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth, to name but two. But how well will these projects fare after the 18-term congressman’s defeat last week and a shifting of leadership in Congress? Not well, according to advocates.
“I would say that the change in chairmanship from Congressman Oberstar is a huge loss, not just because he was from Minnesota, but because he had so many years of experience and so much expertise in the area of transportation policy,” said Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a coalition of business, labor and local government groups concerned about surface transportation in the state. “And his colleagues took their cue from him. He was a real leader in developing transportation policy.”
Oberstar had tried to pass a $500 billion transportation bill but was stymied by the Obama administration, which wanted to pass health care and financial reform before tackling transportation. By delaying Oberstar’s bill — which contained $98.8 billion for transit and $50 billion for passenger rail — it will now face a profoundly altered Congress. Back in June 2009, the administration said consideration could come as soon as this January, which has now become a nearly impossible task with a GOP-controlled House.
But, while that bill sat, Oberstar had been working to build the infrastructure for two high-speed rail projects in Minnesota.
The Minneapolis-to-Duluth rail line, called the Northern Lights Express, looks to be on hold. Oberstar had been instrumental in getting that line started having secured $1.1 million in 2008 to study the project.
He also used his position as committee chair to convince the Federal Rail Commission of the economic growth the project would bring to a region that has been struggling with a decrease in mining and high unemployment.
Chip Cravaack, a Republican who beat Oberstar, says he won’t support the Northern Lights Express.
“I love railroads. Railroads are great,” Cravaack told the Duluth News Tribune. “But unless they can pay for themselves, I just don’t see it being practical. … The majority of these types of trains have to be subsidized, and we just cannot afford to subsidize it right now.”
The Northern Lights Express is only one of several projects that Oberstar backed that are likely to be stalled or eliminated, and for those projects for which funds are available, those funds could end up in other states without a transportation leader.
Donahoe says that losing Oberstar’s eye for Minnesota projects puts the state at a disadvantage.
“It’s helpful to have any chairman of a committee from your state,” she said. “That person understands the issues and challenges people in your state face, and transportation needs vary greatly from the densely populated east coast to less populated states to areas with huge congestion problems to parts of the country with more need for freight movement.”
She also said that political support for high-speed rail projects in the Midwest “may not be as
strong in the wake of the election results.”
That’s already begun to play out in terms of the St. Paul-to-Chicago high-speed line which had been picking up momentum.
In Wisconsin, newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker said he wants to kill a high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee that is already under construction, calling it wasteful and threatening to divert the funds to highways instead. The Obama administration threatened to revoke the $810 million in stimulus funds currently slated for the project because they are to be used only for rail projects.
If the Madison-to-Milwaukee project is killed, it would dash hopes for the line that connects to St. Paul and Chicago.
Oberstar had been a strong backer of the Midwest high speed rail plan and pushed for the line to go through Rochester as well.
Now, advocates of transit in Minnesota have fewer members of Congress who are supportive of these plans.
Said Donahoe, “Having the ability to meet with the Chairman and discuss the transportation needs in Minnesota is important.”