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Oberstar's transportation bill begins legislative journey

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Traffic along I-94/35E
Midday traffic moves along Highway I-94/35E in St. Paul, Minn.
MPR Photo/Steve Mullis

Congressman Jim Oberstar's transportation bill starts its legislative journey today with a draft session scheduled in a House of Representatives subcommittee.

It's one of the first steps toward a vote for the bill, which would nearly double current spending. The Obama administration has proposed postponing reform, but Oberstar says waiting dooms the country to years of delay on transportation projects. 

Oberstar's Surface Transportation Authorization Act would provide $337 billion in funding for highway construction, $100 billion for public transit and $50 billion to build a nationwide high-speed rail system--a grand total of nearly $500 billion over six years. 

Funding for the bill remains sketchy, though Oberstar promises details as it progresses. There's been no talk of increasing the federal gasoline tax which hasn't been raised for 16 years. 

Oberstar, the 74-year-old chair of the House Transportation Committee and 18-term member of Congress from Minnesota's 8th district said Minnesota will drop $188 million in the 2010 fiscal year from the current fiscal year if Congress and the president delay passing the bill he is proposing.

"That's the reality facing us," he said.

"Minnesota's funding will drop $188 million in fiscal 2010 from the current fiscal year."

The $188 million would be an increase in the amount of money the state currently receives, Oberstar said.

What would $188 million buy? 

That's about the cost of the long sought new 169/494 interchange in the southwest Twin Cities suburbs, or hundreds of miles of resurfaced and repaired roadways, or dozens of new buses and a big boost for rural transit services.   

Instead, at least two transportation funding potholes are on the road ahead.

The most immediate one facing Minnesota and other states comes at the end of August, when the final dollars flow out of the federal highway trust fund. 

The second obstacle is the current transportation act calling for $286 billion in spending is not completely funded.

The Obama administration proposes a temporary fix to the highway trust fund, but no details are  being offered by either the Obama administration or Oberstar.

Brookings Institution transportation policy fellow Robert Puentes said the White House response to the Oberstar transportation bill is to hold off, giving Congress time to talk over the measure's sweeping proposals.

"The Obama administration has proposed a short, 18-month authorization that would infuse the federal transportation program with some general fund revenues in order to address the short term shortfall that exists today and provide some space to talk about these significant and important reforms," Puentes said.

Oberstar rails against the Obama administration position, saying an 18-month delay, given how Congress does its work, translates into a four-year wait for federal money from a new federal transportation bill.

Margaret Donahue, the executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a transportation advocacy group, said the administration's proposal to hold off passing a new bill delays funding and creates problems.

"You can't go out and do design work and purchase right away and get projects ready to go if you don't know where the money will come from the construction," Donahue said.

Oberstar's timeline for finishing work on a new federal transportation bill is ambitious. He wants a vote no later than just after Labor Day.

That means committee action and debate would need to be sandwiched in between other matters before Congress, including health care reform and climate change.

That's an ambitious schedule given what Brookings Institution's Robert Puentes said is in Oberstar's far reaching plan.

"His desire to streamline the federal program by consolidating or terminating 75 redundant or outdated programs is no small task at all," he said.

Another factor may cause consternation among Oberstar's colleagues. Oberstar's proposal doesn't eliminate earmarks but requires members of Congress to justify their pet transportation projects back in their home states.