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Former House Transpo Chair James Oberstar on the Post-Interstate Era

Streetsblog had a chance today to ask the former Democratic chief of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, about life since the 2010 election, when he lost by a hair to Republican Chip Cravaack. He said he’s spending his post-Congress time traveling to France, getting paid to say things he used to say for free, and telling his four kids and seven grandkids the story of his wife, who succumbed to breast cancer 20 years ago.

We also asked him for his thoughts about some major themes in transportation today.

Chairman Jim Oberstar calls transportation enhancements "the point of transformation" for transportation. Photo courtesy of Oberstar's office.

On the “dissipation” of high-speed rail funds:

We reshaped Amtrak in the 2008 authorization, designating 11 corridors and creating a mechanism by which there could be competition from private sources and from state consortia, with Amtrak, to provide the passenger rail service in a particular corridor.

At first, I didn’t like that idea, but I spent a lot of time talking to Mr. Mica about it and as we talked, I said, “You know, that’s beginning to make more sense. We ought to challenge Amtrak. That’s a good idea; let’s put this into the bill.” And then we got consensus that high-speed should be defined as 110 mph, and that was in the bill. And we got a bill that George Bush signed!

So there was a structure against which to pit [the $8.5 billion in stimulus dollars for high-speed rail]. I thought that was going to happen. Instead, it was all put up for competition for various states to come forward and put a proposal on the table.

Wisconsin, for example: to Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago. That should have been done as part of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Initiative, with Chicago as the hub, south to St. Louis, east through Detroit to Cleveland and eventually to Cincinnati, and west to Minneapolis-St. Paul. That would have been one very defensible, manageable anchor.

The Northeast Corridor could have been another important anchor. The west coast, which is already underway: a third anchor to this system. And then some other amounts in the other corridors, depending on proposals that they would have and should have submitted to DOT.

Allowing pieces to be bid or requested by states dissipated the critical mass of investment. And I’m not saying that in hindsight – that was my concern at the time.

On the attack on Transportation Enhancements in Congress:

Transportation enhancements was the pivotal point of transformation at the end of the interstate era — an era in which travelers went where the road took them — to the era in which users of our system had a say in their quality of transportation and where that road should go in the future and how their transportation experience should be managed.

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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.
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Oberstar Says Goodbye, Mica Promises Rail and a Long-Term Bill

Rep. Jim Oberstar said goodbye today after 36 years in the House, during which he helped pioneer federal support for biking and walking. “I go in peace of mind and heart, but with sadness,” he said in his concession speech.

Oberstar says goodbye. Photo: ##http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/11/03/oberstar-political-career/##MPR##

Oberstar gives his farewell speech. Photo: MPR

He said he wouldn’t change or take back any of his votes for transportation, especially improvements in his own district. He refused to apologize for the stimulus, saying the infrastructure it paid for will be there for a hundred years.

Meanwhile, John Mica, the top Republican on the Transportation Committee – and its presumptive next chair – said in a statement:

If selected by my peers to chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the next Congress, my primary focus will be improving employment and expanding economic opportunities, doing more with less, cutting red tape and removing impediments to creating jobs, speeding up the process by which infrastructure projects are approved, and freeing up any infrastructure funding that’s been sitting idle.

Among my top legislative priorities will be passing a long-term federal highways and transit reauthorization… I will also focus on major initiatives to find ways within the Committee’s jurisdiction to save taxpayer dollars. That includes better management and utilization of federal assets, including real property, and more efficient, cost effective passenger rail transportation, including a better directed high-speed rail program.

Some reformers saw visions of high speed rail go down the toilet with the flip in Congressional power. Mica seems to indicate otherwise. Certainly, he’ll be under pressure from his party – which reads yesterday’s victory as a mandate for smaller government – to cut spending. But Mica supported Oberstar’s $500 billion transportation bill, and he recognizes the benefits of transit. He’ll need solid backup from advocates — speaking with a fiscal-conservative message — to convince his colleagues that infrastructure investment makes economic sense.

It looks like he’s prepared to try.

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Election Results: GOP Govs Win Big, Dems Take California, Oberstar Ousted

The current governor map, before yesterday's winners are seated.

The current governors map, before yesterday's winners are seated. Several blue states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, will turn red. California will flip from red to blue.

The biggest news from last night, of course, is that the GOP won control of the House of Representatives. That means Republicans now control all the House committees, and Ohio’s John Boehner — a believer in wider highways — will wield the Speaker’s gavel. The Democrats hung on to the Senate, though, and pundits are forecasting two years of gridlock.

Streetsblog has mainly been profiling races for governor where transportation issues had a high profile. Here are some results with big implications for smart growth and sustainable transportation.

Governor Results

California: Jerry Brown (D) 54 percent – Meg Whitman (R) 41 percent
Whitman would have said no to high speed rail, Brown has a record of curbing sprawl and fighting highway expansion.

Colorado: John Hickenlooper (D) 50 percent – Tom Tancredo (AMC) 37 percent – Dan Maes (R) 11 percent
The GOP hangs on to major party status by a hair after bike-paranoid Maes costs them the election. Hickenlooper is a bike and transit advocate who really gets it.

Florida: Rick Scott (R) 49 percent – Alex Sink (D) 48 percent
Scott has said he’ll kill high speed rail, giving back federal dollars. Sink is a transit supporter who said bike infrastructure could improve street safety.

Georgia: Nathan Deal (R) 53 percent – Roy Barnes (D) 43 percent
Barnes has environmental concerns about a highway expansion project Deal supports. Barnes wanted to “unclog Atlanta” through transit.

Maryland: Martin O’Malley (D) 56 percent – Bob Ehrlich (R) 42 percent
Incumbent O’Malley will move forward with building a light-rail Purple Line expansion of the D.C. Metro. Ehrlich said he favored bus rapid transit but some thought he was just trying to cause delays.

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Election Day Finds Two Livability Champions on the Ropes

Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) will likely lose his chairmanship of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as control of the House is widely expected to shift to the Republicans after today’s election. But Oberstar could also lose his seat in Congress.

Oberstar, right, and DeFazio share a ride in a pedi-cab. ##http://willametteriverbridge.blogspot.com/2010/09/congressman-jim-oberstar-d-minnesota.html##Willamette River Bridge Project##

Oberstar, right, and DeFazio share a ride in a pedi-cab. Willamette River Bridge Project

As committee chair, Oberstar has been a strong advocate for transit investment and livability reforms. He’s also the architect and chief proponent of the six-year $500 billion transportation bill that’s been stalled in the House since last summer.

Oberstar has easily won 17 consecutive elections, but the 18th is proving to be a little sticky. The LA Times reports:

[R]ecently, American Crossroads, an independent group affiliated with GOP strategist Karl Rove, started running spots on the Duluth stations that blanket the area. A group formed by Democrat-turned-Republican Dick Morris also launched a spot against Oberstar.

Then a third group called 60 Plus, which bills itself as a conservative alternative to AARP, began broadcasting $100,000 worth of ads saying it was time for the 76-year-old incumbent to retire.

Now, Oberstar’s seat is in play.

According to polling by SurveyUSA, he’s currently just one point ahead of challenger Chip Cravaack, within the margin of error. And he’s not the only champion having to fight harder than usual to retain his seat.

It’s being portrayed as a testament to the power of anti-incumbent sentiment this year that Peter DeFazio (D-OR) finds himself in a surprisingly close race against Republican Art Robinson. DeFazio, as chair of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, has strongly advocated for including livability measures in the transportation bill.

He won his last race with 82 percent, and no independent polls were even commissioned this time around — his chances were considered that good. Conservative money has helped Robinson close the funding gap, though. And the only poll that’s been conducted — admittedly, by a Republican polling firm — shows DeFazio just six points ahead. That’s a lot closer than he expected this race to be.

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House Approves Transpo Spending Bill After Stripping Out $ for Livability

OberstarBlumenauer.jpgCongressmen Oberstar and Blumenauer, here speaking together at the 2007 Bike Summit, were on opposite sides of a dispute about increased funding for livability programs yesterday. Photo: Bike Portland
The House of Representatives passed its 2011 appropriations bill for Transportation and Housing and Urban Development yesterday, significantly increasing the amount going to both highways and transit while decreasing spending overall. A fight over $200 million in funds for the Obama Administration's new livability initiatives, however, showed that substantive changes in federal transportation policy will remain difficult to achieve until Congress tackles the long-term transportation reauthorization bill. 

First, a refresher on the difference between authorizations and appropriations. Roughly speaking, authorizations set policy while appropriations spend money based on those policies. Congress passes a transportation appropriations bill, like the House did yesterday, every year, while the transportation authorization is renewed less frequently. The most recent authorization, SAFETEA-LU, passed in 2005 and was set to expire in 2009. It has been temporarily extended since then while Congress dithers over a new bill. 

According to The Hill, the House's $67.4 billion appropriations bill reduces spending overall by $500 million from last year, and is $1.3 billion less than what the Obama administration requested. Because major priorities are mainly set in the federal transportation bill, the appropriations bill rarely includes large shifts in policy.

On the biggest ticket transportation items, spending increased in this appropriation. The $45.2 billion set for highways is $4.1 billion more than last year's bill provided for, according to The Hill, and $3.9 billion more than the administration asked for. Similarly the $11.3 billion in transit spending would be $500 million more than last year and $575 million more than requested.

One squabble that broke out pitted some of Congress's most prominent proponents of sustainable transportation against each other and ended with $200 million less for livability initiatives -- money that would have been used to help states coordinate transportation, land use, and conservation policy. That funding was proposed by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer. Fighting fiercely against it were Congressmen Peter DeFazio and James Oberstar. As chronicled by the League of American Bicyclists' Andy Clarke, this wasn't a fight about substance -- all four have been champions for livability, overall -- but about process and turf.

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Could Gas-Tax Bonds Pay For the Next Federal Transportation Bill?

House infrastructure committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), facing steep political odds in his push to pass a new six-year federal transportation bill this year, has begun to pitch an outside-the-box solution to the financing shortfall that is still stalling congressional action: Treasury bonds.

Oberstar's proposal would plug the hole in anticipated highway trust fund revenue for the next transport bill with top-rated Treasury debt securities. Those bonds, the Minnesotan explained on Friday, would "be repaid with revenues from the highway trust fund out into the future. And we would delay the repayment for the first perhaps four years, giving the economy time to recover."

In order to repay the Treasury for its up-front bond issue, Congress would ultimately need to raise the gas tax -- a step lawmakers have been unwilling to take since 1993, and one that the White House has ruled out for the time being.

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As Minneapolis Joins NACTO, Oberstar Backs Shift on Transit Operating Aid

At an event in Minneapolis today, House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) announced his support for giving urban transit agencies more flexibility to spend federal transportation formula money on operating -- a change in the current law that has already won the backing of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood but has split the transit industry.

transit_oberstar_3_30_10.jpgOberstar (center) joined New York City transport chief Janette Sadik-Khan (right) at today's event. (Photo: B.Clements, Finance & Commerce)

Oberstar appeared at an event marking Minneapolis' move to join the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), founded 14 years ago by then-New York City Transportation Commissioner Elliot Sander to counterbalance the influence of state DOTs' voice in D.C., the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Oberstar's specific remarks on transit operating aid were unavailable as of press time. But transport committee spokesman Jim Berard said the Minnesotan supported "in principle" the concept of allowing transit agencies from areas with populations greater than 200,000 to use their federal transportation formula grants on operating expenses.

Under current law, urban transit agencies are restricted to spending federal formula money on capital expenses, such as purchasing new rail cars or laying track for an expanded line.

Congress agreed last year to give transit officials the freedom to redirect 10 percent of their federal stimulus aid to operating budgets, underscoring that the change was a temporary response to the recession.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the transit industry's chief lobbying group for more than a century, has opposed the use of formula grants for transit operating, preferring that already-scarce highway trust fund dollars be reserved for capital spending on rail and buses. APTA did not return a request for comment by press time on the growing support for changing the existing rules governing transit operating funds.

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Oberstar Stays Optimistic About New Transport Bill in 2010

House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) on Friday renewed his call for action on a new federal infrastructure bill before year's end, using a hearing on the Obama administration's stimulus law to urge passage of long-term legislation as well as a second round of short-term investment in roads, bridges, and rail.

0131mnfederal_dd_graphic_oberstar.jpgHouse transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) (Photo: Capitol Chatter)
Oberstar invited Joyce Fisk, a construction worker from his home state who gained employment thanks to a stimulus contract, for a second appearance before his panel. After hailing Fisk's "appeal" for a new federal transport law to boost the recession-ravaged construction industry, Oberstar warmly cited the move by Senate environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to use his bill as a starting point in crafting her transportation measure.

The Minnesotan, who clashed openly with the White House this year over its preference to delay new transport legislation until 2011, said he was "encouraged that we will be able to complete the bill in this session of Congress."

One unspoken source of urgency for Oberstar and fellow House members: waiting until next year to take up a new transport bill would mean starting from scratch after the midterm elections, which could significantly shrink the size of the Democrats' majority. A more conservative transport committee would complicate the path to passage for the new transit spending envisioned in Oberstar's current bill.

Oberstar was the dominant force at the stimulus hearing, scheduled for a Friday afternoon when many members were in the process of returning home for Congress' Easter recess. The chairman took the opportunity to press witnesses on unresolved policy controversies, including the debate over allowing transit agencies to spend federal aid on operating -- a representative for the transit industry's lobbying group called for extending the 10-percent flexibility approved last year -- and the need for Senate movement on the "second stimulus" that cleared the House in December.

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Transit Riders Launch Grassroots Lobbying Push in Dire Political Climate

Advocates for urban transit riders in 14 metro areas climbed the Hill today to pitch lawmakers face-to-face on the need for extra federal transit operating aid, a grassroots lobbying effort that could face considerable challenges even as Democrats craft a new jobs bill with a focus on infrastructure.

geddies.jpgLee Gaddies of Detroit speaks at today's event. Photo: TEN

Today's event, organized by the Transportation Equity Network (TEN), brought local community advocates to the House's Longworth building for roundtable sessions with aides to several members of Congress.

Federal Transit Administration executive director Matthew Welbes briefed the group on his agency's new shift away from a solely cost-effectiveness-based standard for approving new funding plans, and TEN co-chair Sarah Mullins hailed a victory for transit equity in Minneapolis, where light rail planners have added three new stops in lower-income areas.

But as the grassroots lobbyists prepared to make the case for more transit operating aid in the coming Senate jobs bill -- the House version allowed cities to spend 10 percent of their Washington funds on keeping trains and buses running -- Jim Kolb, staff director for House transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), was on hand with a candid assessment of the battle facing transit riders.

Kolb began by outlining an impasse that will be familiar to Streetsblog readers: Oberstar's $500 billion, six-year transportation bill, which aims to fundamentally shift federal policymaking away from a road-centric perspective, is languishing as Democrats decline to find a way to pay for it.

Meanwhile, the uncertain flurry of short-term extensions to the current law and the decision to route stimulus transport funding through state DOTs has given defenders of the status quo time to dig in their heels.

"A lot of folks who work for state DOTs have real concerns about the bill we put out," Kolb told the groups. "They don't want to have a conversation about accountability -- we have a different vision with our bill."

But with more than 10 percent for transit operating proving a hard sell in itself, getting a spending-shy Congress on board for that new vision is likely to be even more difficult. As Kolb put it:

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