Oberstar Stays Optimistic About New Transport Bill in 2010

House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) today 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 today's 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.

"We have to sustain those existing jobs and investments so the private sector can catch up -- one more summer of stimulus will set the stage and move the country forward," Oberstar said, deeming the Senate's progress on infrastructure job creation "not sufficient."

During a discussion on the massive financing gap that is bogging down the next transport bill, Oberstar also pooh-poohed the prospects of tolling interstate highways built during the road program's postwar heyday. Pennsylvania is currently pushing for federal approval to add tolls to an existing interstate.

"We're not going to allow tolling of the interstate highway system," Oberstar said. "It's already been built and paid for."