James Oberstar on the Future of U.S. Transportation Funding

oberstar.jpgMinnesota Representative James Oberstar is perhaps the strongest advocate for transit on Capitol Hill. In a recent Q&A with the Kansas City Star, he shared his thoughts on how the financial crisis will affect federal investments in transportation:

Transit currently receives about 20 percent of federal surface transportation funding.  Next year’s surface transportation authorization will give us the opportunity to draft transformative legislation and completely restructure our transit program to reflect the new realities of America’s transportation needs.

Generating the revenues to develop the surface transportation network necessary to support the nation’s mobility and accessibility needs will be a major challenge for us to face in the authorization process next year.

The crisis in the financial markets and the demand for government help to resolve it will have an enormous effect on Congress’ ability to appropriate funds for a wide number of programs next year and beyond.

Although our surface transportation program is funded with its own revenue stream, primarily the federal fuel taxes drivers pay at the pump, that funding stream brings with it its own challenges in these times.

First, the rate has not been adjusted since 1993, and the purchasing power of the motor fuel excise tax revenue has been eroded by over 30 percent over this time. In addition, as people react to the high cost of fuel through conservation, fewer gallons of gasoline and diesel are purchased, and less revenue is collected.

These challenges will likely have an impact on the amount of money the federal government will be able to invest in highways, bridges, and transit in the coming years. Addressing this challenge will require Congress and the next administration to demonstrate the vision, leadership and the political will to identify financing and revenue options to generate the investments necessary to create the multimodal surface transportation system that will serve us best.