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Oberstar defeat ends era of transportation policy influence

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Jim, Jean Oberstar
U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar hugs his wife Jean after speaking to media at the Gerald W. Heaney Federal Building in Duluth, Minn. on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010. Oberstar had just been defeated by Republican challenger Chip Cravaack.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

After 36 years in Congress, Rep. Jim Oberstar's defeat means the loss of a lot of clout for Minnesota transportation projects on Capitol Hill.

Oberstar became the chairman of the House Transportation Committee in 2007. While Rep. Tim Walz will still have a seat on the committee as Republicans assume control of the House, a major chapter of Minnesota influence on national transportation policy is coming to a close.

Oberstar told reporters in Duluth Wednesday he has no regrets about votes over his nearly four decades in Congress that brought home millions of dollars for Minnesota transportation projects. He rattled of a list of accomplishments.

"Lives are saved every year on Highway 8 in Chisago County for the improvements that I brought at a citizens committee request," he said. "The lake walk in Duluth will survive long after my service ... The extension of the Sunrise Prairie Trail ... will link eventually Canada and the Twin Cities with a continuous bicycling facility that will be the envy of the nation." 

Oberstar led a committee that traditionally stayed above the partisan fray.

Observers say Republicans and Democrats on the committee tend to agree that infrastructure spending creates jobs that boost the economy, but that bipartisan mood does not include agreement on the biggest question: how to pay for transportation projects.

Brookings Institute transportation policy analyst Robert Puentes said the Obama administration and the presumptive transportation committee chairman in the next Congress, Florida Republican Rep. John Mica, both oppose increasing the gas tax.

"And in fact the folks who'd been talking about it the most I think one of them is Mr. Oberstar," he said.l "So, you've lost someone with all the technical and institutional knowledge his tenure on the committee, but you've lost one of those voices who was promoting this as the way forward, the gas tax idea." 

Minnesota this year received just over $550 million in federal gas tax revenue for roads and bridges.

Scott Peterson, the Minnesota Department of Transportation's director of legislative affairs, said he is confident the state won't lose any money -- with one possible exception.

The federal highway trust fund is bankrupt because spending exceeds revenue. Congress has applied band aids sending general fund dollars to the fund.

Peterson isn't convinced that will continue.

"Now again with perhaps a renewed emphasis on lowering the deficit I'm not sure we can continue to count on that," he said.

The funding picture for transit is equally cloudy.

The Central Corridor light rail line from Minneapolis to St. Paul needs about $460 million in federal dollars for completion.

The project is very high on the Federal Transit Administration's priority list and is likely to win FTA guarantee of funding soon.

But funding for a proposed light rail line from Minneapolis to the southwestern metro is less certain, even though Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the project has strong support in traditional Republican territory.

"You've got chambers of commerce along that entire southwest corridor that are incredibly supportive of this," he said. 

McLaughlin says the defeat of Oberstar, a passenger rail advocate, means money for commuter rail and for a high speed passenger rail link from Chicago to St. Paul is less likely.

Washington lobbyist Dennis McGrann said the end of Oberstar's long run closes a chapter in transportation history.  McGrann, who directs the Washington, D.C. office for the Minneapolis law firm Lockridge Grindal Nauen, notes that former Minnesota congressman John Blatnik, one of Oberstar's mentors, former Rep. Martin Sabo and then Oberstar all held powerful transportation and appropriations leadership positions in Congress.

"Minnesota has had, if you will, nearly 60 years of leadership on transportation policy, transportation issues," he said.

That, combined with the departure of veteran state lawmakers with transportation funding experience raises questions about the funding future for a range of state road, bridge and transit projects.

The chairman of the House Transportation Finance and Policy Division, Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, lost his re-election bid after 13 terms, and Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing Falls, decided not to seek reelection.

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