Congress is back to work in Washington after the August recess and Congressman Jim Oberstar is continuing to make the case for a major overhaul of the federal Department of Transportation and a new …
Congress is back to work in Washington after the August recess and Congressman Jim Oberstar is continuing to make the case for a major overhaul of the federal Department of Transportation and a new direction for the nation’s transportation system as a whole.
In a recent interview with the Timberjay, Oberstar argued that it’s well past time for reform at the DOT, a vast federal bureaucracy that has frequently slowed progress on projects large and small.
Oberstar, who serves as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, called the delay in approval of the environmental review on Tower's harbor project by the Federal Highway Administration “a manifestation of the problem.” Oberstar said even simple projects, such as mill overlays, routinely take three years to permit. “We have slow starts and no starts,” he said. Oberstar wants to create an office of expedited project delivery, “to ride herd on projects.”
But that's just one small part of Oberstar's ambitious agenda. “We have to transform the department, restructure the Federal Highway Administration, and reconfigure all the programs to make a transformational difference in delivery of projects and safety,” said Oberstar.
The Congressman complained that the department has become too fragmented and suffers from too little internal communication. Oberstar’s initiative slices over 75 areas of funding within the department down to just four, provides greater transparency, and sets goals for progress. States, for example, would have to develop six year strategic plans, with yearly reviews to measure progress and annual reports so the public can see how well they are performing. “We have to show the public where those funds are going, and what for,” he said.
Oberstar’s plan would also require top administrators within the department to meet monthly, something they have rarely done, according to Oberstar. “Most of these modal administrators haven't so much as sat down and had a cup of coffee together in 40 years,” he said.
Oberstar would also expand flexibility for states, allowing them to shift funding to other transportation priorities.
Oberstar says streamlining the department and shifting the focus to prompt and efficient delivery of transportation projects is critical if the nation is going to meet its changing transportation priorities. Oberstar noted that even high priority projects take far too long. “The Stillwater Bridge has taken 30 years,” he said. On mass transit, Oberstar said he wants to see the current 14-year timeline for projects such as light rail compressed to just three years from initiation to ridership.
Oberstar’s plan also calls for major new investments in safety, as part of his goal of cutting the death toll on the nation's highways in half within six years.
“The main thrust is if we can move our bill into law, simplifying the process and giving states greater flexibility, it will save time, will save money, and we’ll have a safer and more efficient transportation system.”
While streamlining could go a long ways, Oberstar’s plan also calls for additional sources of funding. And that has put Oberstar at loggerheads with the Obama administration, which is calling on Congress to reauthorize existing transportation law for another 18 months after it expires in September. “Convincing this administration that we should raise the user fee [gas tax] is a big sell,” said Oberstar. “They're very skiddish about it.”
Oberstar said indexing the gas tax to the cost of construction is one idea for maintaining the value of the gas tax, which tends to erode over time due to inflation. Oberstar notes that the current 18.4¢ a gallon federal excise tax on fuel has lost 47 percent of its purchasing power since it was last increased in October of 1997.
Oberstar is doubtful most members of the public would object to an increase in the gas tax. Given the often dramatic price changes, for gasoline in particular, Oberstar questioned whether the public would even notice incremental adjustments in the gas tax. “They will notice, however, when their roads fall apart,” he said.
Yet Oberstar isn’t wedded to a gas tax increase. He's considering a number of proposals, including issuing transportation bonds, or setting new taxes on oil speculation. “We’re open to ideas,” he said. One such idea being talked about is a tax on oil futures speculators. “This would be a tax on the people who helped bring us $100 oil,” said Oberstar spokesperson John Schadl. He points to a recent analysis of the idea, which suggested the tax could generate $40 billion annually, a not-insignificant amount of money. Schadl said the tax could well save most Americans money, by reducing oil speculation, which tends to drive oil price run-ups, such as the country saw last year.
However it’s paid for, Oberstar said the payoff from an improved transportation system will be significant. “Road conditions are costing money to the public and businesses. UPS reported that for every five minutes of delay, it costs them $100 million systemwide. If we make these investments, there's a huge return to the public.”