As the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Congressman Jim Oberstar plays a key role in directing hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending on highways, bridges, airports, locks and dams, and public transit systems.
Oberstar wants to make sure Minnesota is getting its slice of the pie. But he said that Minnesota isn't taking advantage of federal funding for many of its tranportation programs. According to Oberstar, "if Minnesota doesn't get busy, you're not going to be able to match the $4.3 billion in federal highway trust fund monies available to Minnesota under the law."
Oberstar says Minnesota needs to come up with matching funds of about 20 cents on the dollar. He says one place to start is to raise the state gas tax for the first time since the 1980s. Oberstar suggested an increase of five cents per gallon or more would bring in some of the available $4.3 billion.
"You'd raise 161 million additional dollars and bring it up to $806 million for the total revenues for the state. And a 30 cent gas tax, a 10 cent increase, you'd get up to $322,000 or $966 million. And now you can start investing in roads and bridges and transit systems, and make our state a better and more mobile state," he said.
Oberstar's comments provided support for bipartisan transportation proposals already on the table. Bills introduced in the House and Senate would increase the gas tax as a way to fund transportation projects. Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, says the state is at a critical juncture.
"We do need to get real money on the table so we can do things. I think that a gas tax is not out of the question; license tab fees, wheelage tax. We threw everything in the bill we could think of-even an increase in bonds," Murphy said.
DFL and Republican legislators support a gas tax increase. Gov. Pawlenty is the biggest roadblock. The Republican governor has vetoed a gas tax increase before and he's threatened to do it again. But several of the governor's supporters are moving away from him on this issue. Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, says she hasn't ruled out any option for transportation funding.
"I'm still staying open. I think we do need additional revenue. Just what form it should take, I'm going to hear it all," Olson said.
Olson is hoping the governor might be flexible too. If not, DFL leaders appear willing to take on Pawlenty's veto challenge.
Sen. Murphy says there's strong bipartisan support for a transportation bill. He says the Senate will move forward with or without the governor's help.
Spokesman Brian McClung says Gov. Pawlenty thinks Minnesotans pay enough at the gas pump, and he wants to find other ways to fund transportation projects.