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Oberstar continues to push for more transportation infrastructure investment

By John D. Schulz, Contributing Editor
April 01, 2010

WASHINGTON—When it comes to transportation infrastructure spending and innovation, the world is in the passing lane and the United States in the breakdown lane with a broken axle. At least that’s how Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, currently sees it.

On the heels of historic health care reform, Oberstar is imploring the nation to reach deep into its pockets for a six-year, $450 million surface transportation bill (with another $100 million for mass transit) and said he is “open to all ideas” on how to pay for it—except one.

“I’m open to all ideas except tolling for existing highways,” Rep. Oberstar said. “We’ve paid for those highways once. We’re not going to pay for them again.”

Oberstar, speaking at the spring conference of the American Association of Port Authorities, said Europe and Asia are outspending the U.S. on infrastructure and the results show. For instance, he noted a high speed train that connects Paris to Brussels—244 miles, in 45 minutes. By comparison, Amtrak’s fastest train connects New York to Washington that covers 244 miles in 2-½ hours.

“And I guarantee you it goes 135 miles per hour for three minutes,” Oberstar quipped. “What are we, a third world country? We’re not doing things right in this country. We need a new Interstate Highway process.”

Two recent commissions on that process have called for investing $106 billion a year over the next 20 years to maintain the current system, compared to the $80 billion a year currently spent on highways and bridges by all levels of government.

“We need to get people moving again,” Oberstar said, “and get them out of traffic. What are we leaving for the next generation? What investments are we making to make their lives better?

The nation is ignoring ocean and water shipping as well, said Oberstar, who called for a “new understanding” of our relationship with water to help modernize maritime shipping. “Our great cities were great ports before they were cities,” he said. “Ports are a driving engine of our economy,” he said, noting that they produce 13.3 million jobs and generate $3 trillion in revenue, or 15 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.

“In the maritime business, you cannot afford to think small,” Oberstar implored port officials. “You have to think bigger.”

Invoking the memories of the great clipper ships and using quotations from poet Lord Byron, Oberstar, a 35-year member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is strongly pushing a six-year, $450 billion bill to replace the $286 billion expired SAFE-TEA-LU highway bill. He also wants to spend $100 million on mass transit in that span.

About the Author

John D. Schulz
Contributing Editor

John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. He is known to own the fattest Rolodex in the business, and is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis. This wise Washington owl has performed and produced at some of the highest levels of journalism in his 40-year career, mostly as a Washington newsman.

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