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Oberstar’s Final Words of Wisdom

Outgoing Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Jim Oberstar (D-MN) just wrapped up a roundtable conversation with reporters. He looked back on his 36 years in Congress – starting in January 1963 as clerk of the the Rivers and Harbors Committee, which eventually morphed into the T & I Committee.

Photo: ##http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/07/28/oberstar-aviation-safety-measures/##MPR##

Photo: MPR

He said the history of the committee – and his service to it – has been “the movement of people safely, efficiently, and effectively, for the betterment of the nation.”

He also imparted some final nuggets of wisdom for those who will follow him on the committee:

  • Earmarks. Oberstar said a bill “devoid of the 27,000 earmarks like we had in 2006” would be a good thing. “That’s excess,” he said. But, he said, it was too simplistic to shut legislators out of the allocation process. “If you believe that, then the executive branch – at the national or state level – will make all those decisions.” He pointed to his own achievements in making the process more accountable and transparent.
  • The reauthorization. He acknowledged that it was a “big hole in the legislative agenda.” He blamed the White House and the Senate for failing to come up with an agreement on a financing mechanism.
  • An extension. He said that an answer on the length of the extension of the current authorization could come as early as tomorrow, when the newly elected House and Senate leadership meets. He even threw out the possibility that “if they come to some agreement, we could maybe even be doing a new authorization in the balance of this session. We’d be prepared to do that.” Assuming that won’t happen, however, he spoke strongly against doing short, month-to-month extensions as a forcing mechanism to “hold somebody’s feet to the fire.” He said that was not reasonable. He said if it wasn’t going to be a six-year bill, they should extend it for a year.
  • Read more…

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Deja Vu Again: One-Man Senate Filibuster Imperils Federal Transport Law

A familiar script for Washington infrastructure watchers began to unfold last night on the Senate floor, as House-side resistance
to a 10-month extension of existing federal transportation law prompted
Democratic leaders to seek a quick deal on a one-month stopgap — the
fourth such short-term move in six months.

art.bunning.gi.pngSen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) (Photo: CNN)

But
one GOP senator, the notoriously irascible Jim Bunning (KY), objected
to the 30-day extension, which also would ensure continued payment of
federal unemployment benefits. When Democrats pleaded with Bunning to
drop his one-man filibuster effort, Politico heard the retiring Kentuckian offer a terse response: "Tough s–t."

If
an extension cannot be passed before the 2005 transportation law
officially expires at midnight on Sunday, the result would be a
quasi-shutdown of operations at U.S. DOT. A source at the agency told
Streetsblog Capitol Hill that all employees of the Federal Highway
Administration, save for its chief, would be sent home and states would
stop getting reimbursed for their spending on all road projects.

The
Federal Transit Administration would see a freeze of its own, the U.S.
DOT source said, with contract authority to fund local projects sitting
in limbo until Congress acts. Perhaps the most untimely delay would
occur at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA),
where regulators are ramping up their oversight efforts after the Toyota recall debacle.

"[I]t is simply unfair for one senator
to attempt to hold the Senate hostage,” Dick Durbin (D-IL), the upper chamber’s No. 2 leader, said last night in a statement.

Where does that leave Democrats? Working furiously to break through Bunning’s roadblock, even as more House members join transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) in raising objections to the Senate jobs bill that would keep existing federal programs intact until 2011.

Oberstar and about two dozen members of his panel take issue with the Senate jobs bill’s treatment of $932 million in grants
that would be spent this year as part of a 10-month extension of
existing transport law. Giving that money to states using the template
of 2009 earmarks — as the Senate jobs bill proposes — would direct
the majority of the money to four states, leaving 22 states with
nothing.

A letter sent earlier this week by 23 members of the
transportation committee asks for the grant money to be given out on a
"discretionary, competitive" basis. However, Oberstar spokesman Jim
Berard said in an interview that the chairman has offered a compromise
that would allocate the funding based on existing federal
transportation formulas.

Berard said that Oberstar would
prefer to see the $932 million allocated competitively to projects
rather than distributed by formula. But he acknowledged the reasoning
behind the Senate’s argument that applying for the funding would not
facilitate quick job creation. "If we’re not going to make it
competitive," Berard said, "at least let’s make it equitable."

At
the moment, the House appears unlikely to act on the jobs legislation
until at least next week, giving Oberstar and his panel more time to
reach agreement with senators — and heightening the drama of Bunning’s
Senate floor show.

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How Can Transit Backers Sway Conservatives? Oberstar Joins the Debate

In the years before partisan warfare became the norm in Washington,
transportation tended to unite both ends of the ideological spectrum.
Can rationality return to infrastructure policy debates that have
become subsumed by culture clashes between cyclists and drivers,
urbanists and suburbanites — and, of course, Democrats and Republicans?

6a00d83454714d69e20120a56823e7970b_320wi.jpgHighways and transit, side by side in Berlin. (Photo: Streetsblog.net)

That
question brought House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar
(D-MN) to a small meeting room on Capitol Hill today as conservative
transit advocate Bill Lind engaged assistant transportation secretary Polly Trottenberg, Reconnecting America president John Robert Smith, and urban developer Chris Leinberger in a spirited debate.

Lind focused on the themes of Moving Minds,
a book he co-wrote with the late conservative icon Paul Weyrich to
debunk many of the anti-transit, pro-roads myths trotted out by Randal O’Toole, Wendell Cox, and other pundits on the right.

"The
way we got to America’s national motto being ‘drive or die’ … is not
because of any sort of free market," Lind said today. "We got here
because of massive government subsidization of one competitor and the taxing of another."

But
the dialogue got interesting when Oberstar arrived, a cast on his arm
after taking a spill on a sheet of ice. He shared an anecdote about
former French President Charles de Gaulle’s support for rail before
hitting a familiar note, one best described as respectfully critical of
the Obama administration.

"Political will
– that’s what we’re lacking today and have been lacking for a long
time," Oberstar said, urging fellow policymakers "to reinvest in a
system that moves great numbers of people at the lowest cost."

In
a direct communication to Trottenberg, the White House’s representative
in the room, he added that he stands ready to take up a new federal
transportation bill "whenever this administration can find its
political will to support a financing mechanism."

Trottenberg
took the floor next, acknowledging "frustration" on the part of U.S.
DOT staff as they seek to build political support for the difficult
choices needed to raise revenue for large-scale reform. Read more…

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‘The Concrete is Cracking’: Front-Loaded New Transport Bill Gains Steam

With the U.S. unemployment rate hitting 10.2 percent today, its highest level in 26 years, a palpable shift is occurring on Capitol Hill.

20070102_oberstar_2.jpgHouse transportation chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) (Photo: STLToday)

For weeks, we’ve heard senior Democrats and the transit industry
make the case for more transportation spending as a potent job creator,
but the lack of funding for a full six-year bill has kept the
conversation stalled.

But two things have happened in the week since Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) floated the idea of a "front-loaded" infrastructure plan that would concentrate investment in the first two years:

  • The defeat of two Democratic candidates in Tuesday’s off-year elections reinforced that job creation and economic worries are the No. 1 concerns for voters.
  • Gross domestic product may be rebounding, but unemployment decidedly is not.

This
adds up to renewed interest in fast-tracking a new transportation bill,
perhaps with a two-year window. As House transport committee chairman
Jim Oberstar (D-MN) told David Rogers of Politico, "The concrete is cracking."

But even if the White House is prepared to abandon its insistence
on an 18-month extension of current law, how to pay for new
transportation legislation remains a very open question. House Majority
Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), for his part, told Rogers that he likes the
sound of Rep. Pete DeFazio’s (D-OR) proposed tax on Wall Street oil speculators:

There
are some painless ways to fund the highway bill. Transaction taxes,
that’s a painless way … Where are the shared contributions to all
this? If you’re sitting
there on Wall Street, if you’re Goldman Sachs, if you’re making all
this money, if you got all this federal money [in a] bailout, and you
are paying all these big bonuses to your folks, where is your
contribution to this recovery? That’s why it’s painless.

Clyburn’s reference to the "highway" bill brings up another lingering
mystery about the type of transportation spending being envisioned by
senior Democrats. If the White House does agree to support a new
infrastructure bill after health care is finished, will it include
policy changes or just new money?

Read more…

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Transportation Policy Becomes the Proverbial Tree Falling in the Forest

Halfway through this afternoon’s rally
in support of a new federal transportation bill, there came an
accidental but telling moment. A group of tourists, attracted by the
hundreds of orange flags planted in the National Mall for the rally,
walked through the event and whispered questions to attendees about its
purpose. Once their curiosity was sated, the group lost interest and
ambled away.

0131mnfederal_dd_graphic_oberstar.jpgRep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) (Photo: Capitol Chatter)

The tourists may well have been speaking for most senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where this week’s growing momentum
towards a six-month timetable for taking up the next long-term
infrastructure bill was abruptly squelched by GOP senators’ inability
to find consensus among their members.

As the subscription-only CQ reported today:

Efforts in the Senate
to take up a six-month extension of surface transportation law this
week appear dead, over objections by a few Republicans to passing it
without a full debate, said James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking
Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

… Inhofe said Tuesday that at least two Republicans objected
and that there is not enough floor time to finish a bill this week under
normal procedure. 

The Senate’s lack of progress means that officials working on the
nation’s transit, roads, bridges, and bike paths will likely have to
continue operating under a second short-term extension of the 2005 transportation law, this time lasting until December 18.

Despite
the prospects of continuing uncertainty on the local level, House
transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) remained upbeat
and focused on a singular goal: getting his colleagues to elevate
infrastructure to the top-of-mind status currently occupied by health
care (followed by financial regulation and climate change).

"Encircle
the White House," Oberstar advised the organizers of today’s rally, who
parked heavy-duty construction equipment along the sidewalk to
symbolize their plea for more transportation spending. "Encircle the
Senate!"

The economic stimulus law’s $48 billion in transport
aid, $8.4 billion of which went to transit, "will dry up" by spring of
next year, Oberstar added. He threw in a jab at Obama administration
officials who insisted on cutting stimulus transit spending to pay for tax cuts: "I don’t know of anybody who’s thanked me for their $250 tax credit … God only knows what’s happened to it."

Speaking to reporters after the rally, Oberstar said that extending
the 2005 transportation law until the holidays "will give us time
between now and Christmas to agree on a six-year bill."

But the Minnesotan’s push for taking up his $450 billion proposal
by year’s end has yet to be met with any enthusiasm from the White
House and senior Senate Democrats, who until recently had aligned with
Obama aides in favor of an 18-month delay.

Read more…

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Senate Signals 6-Month Delay for Transport Bill — But Will the House Agree?

The Senate is leaning towards abandoning the Obama administration’s
push for an 18-month delay of the next long-term transportation bill
and now plans to pursue a six-month extension of existing federal
infrastructure law, according to a report from CQ this afternoon:

0131mnfederal_dd_graphic_oberstar.jpgRep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) (Photo: Capitol Chatter)

An industry
official said the senators realized they would have trouble moving the
administration-backed 18-month extension, so they acquiesced to a
shorter term bill. …

A shorter extension would be a victory for
proponents of long-term transportation legislation such as the
six-year, $500 billion plan being pressed by House Transportation and
Infrastructure Chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn.

But
would Oberstar be inclined to see a six-month delay as a victory?
Oberstar and his top transportation lieutenant, Rep. Pete DeFazio
(D-OR), have warned
that a series of short-term delays in the next infrastructure law risks
compromising U.S. economic recovery, and it’s not clear that House
members would go along with a six-month extension.

"At
this point, we are sticking with the extension to the end of December
that passed the House," Oberstar spokesman Jim Berard said in an
interview.

One factor that may add a new wrinkle to the debate is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) push for
a fresh round of job-creation legislation, which has given Oberstar new
momentum to pitch his long-term infrastructure bill as part of the
overall stimulus effort.

Pelosi aligned
with Oberstar’s position on a new transportation bill earlier this
year; if the Speaker keeps more extra infrastructure spending from the
government’s general fund in the economic stimulus mix, the House’s
opposition to a longer-term extension could ease somewhat. The puzzle
remains how to pay for more federal transportation investment, given widespread resistance in Washington to raising the gas tax.

Should
the Senate win passage of a six-month extension, the earliest possible
deadline for Congress to take up Oberstar’s six-year bill — which
provides about $100 billion for transit and $337 billion for highways
– would be the end of April. The 2005 infrastructure law, however, is operating
under a one-month extension that expires at the end of this month,
meaning that lawmakers may have to push it forward for one more month
before reaching a final deal.

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Deja Vu: Congress Could Put Off Deal on Transport Bill Until Next Month

After a day of
twists and turns, the House yesterday approved a three-month extension
of the current law that governs spending on the nation’s transit,
bridges, and roads. Yet the 335-85 vote obscures an ongoing clash between the House and Senate that could extend into a fourth straight month.

59a_confusing_road_signs.jpg(Image: East Bay R.E.)

House
transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and most members
on his side of the Capitol contend that a three-month extension is
needed to spur an agreement on a long-term infrastructure bill before
year’s end.

But given Senate Democrats’ preference for an
18-month delay, the two chambers soon could add a one-month extension
of existing transport law to the spending bill that Congress must pass by next week to keep the government funded.

Such
a move would effectively postpone until October 30 the deadline for the
House and Senate to reach an agreement. Oberstar, speaking on the House
floor yesterday, was unmoved by the Senate and White House’s call for a
long delay in reforming transportation spending.

The difficult decisions
that we face today will not be any easier in 18 months, and the
American people will pay the price for our inaction through lost jobs,
decreased mobility, diminished productivity, and continued high levels
of traffic fatalities and injuries.

Republicans
split their votes on the three-month extension after their leaders
chose to oppose the bill, protesting the mere possibility that a
federal gas tax increase could be debated as a funding mechanism for
Oberstar’s six-year, $500 billion transportation plan. House Minority
Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) accused Oberstar of trying to "buy time to
bring the parties together to the table to agree on a gas tax
[increase]."

Outside of Washington, construction companies
and state DOTs say that uncertain federal funding is slowing down some
massive — and environmentally questionable — road projects. For
example, the Missouri DOT is reportedly in limbo on its $3.5 billion plan to widen I-70 between St. Louis and Kansas City to accommodate truck-only lanes, a project that has drawn criticism from the Sierra Club and other green groups.

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Oberstar’s 3-Month Transport Bill Extension Heading to House Floor

A three-month extension of existing federal infrastructure law –
which is set to expire in eight days — is headed for a vote in the
full House this week, likely as soon as tomorrow, according to a
spokesman for transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN).

422093580_050ae3f4c9.jpgHouse transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) (Photo: Bike Portland via Flickr)

Oberstar is preparing to formally introduce his three-month stopgap transport bill
later today, spokesman Jim Berard told Streetsblog Capitol Hill. The
bill is set to be considered on the House’s "suspensions" calendar,
limiting the time for debate and requiring a two-thirds majority for
approval.

The House’s decision to press onward with a three-month delay
sets up a game of legislative chicken similar to the one that developed
in late July,
when Oberstar was still standing firm on his vow to produce a new
transportation bill before September 30. That impasse ended with the
Senate and White House prevailing and the nation’s highway trust fund
receiving a $7 billion infusion to keep it solvent until the end of
this month.

Will this month’s version end with the House
again bowing to the Obama administration’s preference that a new
transport bill not be considered until early 2011? Now, as in July, the
deck is stacked against the lower chamber of Congress. The U.S. Chamber
of Commerce and other business interests are behind Oberstar’s three-month plan, but their lobbying in favor of a gas tax increase has not yet succeeded in rousing a reluctant Congress.

Meanwhile,
the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials,
popularly known as the "road lobby," is concerned largely with averting
a cancellation of $8.7 billion in federal funds that would
automatically occur if the House and Senate do not reach an agreement
by next week.

Stay tuned for more information on Oberstar’s forthcoming extension plan.

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Oberstar to Back 3-Month Delay in Transport Bill As Soon As Next Week

House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) is readying
a proposal to extend current infrastructure law by three months — 15
months less than the delay preferred by the White House — and could introduce the legislation as soon as next week, his office said today.

0131mnfederal_dd_graphic_oberstar.jpgHouse transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) (Photo: Capitol Chatter)

"It’s
obvious that we’re running out of September," Oberstar spokesman Jim
Berard told Streetsblog Capitol Hill, noting that lawmakers have become
caught up by legislative battles over health care and climate change.

"We’re at a point where a decision has to be made: it’s either to extend for a short time or have the
whole system collapse," Berard added. "Under those circumstances of two
bad choices," Oberstar is prepared to back a short-term extension
rather than letting the 2005 federal transport bill expire at the end
of the month.

A three-month delay, endorsed last week
by Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR) would punt decision-making on
transportation reform until just after New Year’s. Even then,
revenue-raisers on the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate
Finance Committee are still likely to face considerable obstacles in paying for Oberstar’s six-year, $500 billion legislation.

Berard
acknowledged that the extension would have to be negotiated with House
leaders as well as the White House and the Senate, both of which have
already come out in favor of an 18-month delay. "We may, as early as
next week, introduce a bill and start the process," he said.

That bill would be a "clean" extension," in Capitol parlance — omitting data collection money and other small-scale reforms that the Obama administration has proposed.

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Oberstar Stands Firm on Transportation Bill, Gets Industry Backup

In case any doubts
remained about his willingness to challenge the White House and the
Senate on prompt passage of a long-term infrastructure bill, House
transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar’s (D-MN) op-ed in the Politico this morning should clear them up:

0131mnfederal_dd_graphic_oberstar.jpgHouse transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) (Photo: Capitol Chatter)

Unfortunately, the administration and some in the Senate have suggested
an 18-month extension of the existing surface transportation programs.
This approach does little more than delay the critical reforms and
difficult choices that must be made now.

Under this approach, come March 31, 2011, we would find ourselves faced
with the same decisions, the same outdated and inefficient programs and
even more costly investment needs in all modes of our transportation
system. Moreover, given that the new deadline would come at the outset
of a new Congress, additional extensions are inevitable.

Worst of all, failure to pass a long-term surface transportation
authorization on time would bring significant uncertainty to states and
MPOs that must plan critical projects years in advance. They require
long-term funding assurances and stability from their federal partners
to proceed in this process.

Oberstar’s
commentary is strongly worded, but it stops short of vowing to stand in
the way of a shorter-term delay in taking up a new federal
transportation bill — an outcome that appears all but certain given
the 10 legislative days remaining until current law expires on
September 30.

"Delay for the sake of delay is
unacceptable," Oberstar concludes in the op-ed. That framing opens the
door, if slightly, to a compromise on a delay that would give Congress’
revenue-raising committees (Senate Finance and House Ways and Means)
more time to devise a stable funding source for the bill.

Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR), Oberstar’s chief subcommittee chairman, told The Hill on Friday
that he hoped to see a three-month extension, which would put off work
on a new bill until just after New Year’s. Others in the capital
believe a 12-month extension, as proposed by Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), would have a stronger chance of success.

But
DeFazio reiterated that Oberstar has yet to weigh in with his preferred
timeframe. In the meantime, the chairman is getting backup from a broad
array of transportation interest groups that operate under the aegis of
the Freight Stakeholders Coalition.

The
Coalition held a press conference this morning to reiterate its support
for passage of a new long-term infrastructure bill this year. The
American Public Transportation Association (APTA) was absent from the
lineup, but representatives of the highway, rail, trucking, and port
lobbies were in attendance, as was the Association of Metropolitan
Planning Organizations.