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Oberstar Blasts White House over 18-Month Road Bill Delay
Monday, 17 August 2009 00:00

Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, accused the White House of running for cover in its push to delay consideration of a new highway bill for 18 months.

In an Aug. 5 speech at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Oberstar outlined ways to fund the multiyear transportation bill he has drafted. He said private groups, including American Trucking Associations, should take the lead in developing a consensus on how to pay for the new transportation plan, since the White House and Senate are not.

“The ‘Yes we can’, ‘Change you can believe in’ White House ran for cover,” he said during his speech.

The Obama administration, with the backing of several key Senate transportation leaders, has pressed for an 18-month delay in reauthorizing transportation legislation and has opposed increasing fuel taxes to pay for transportation projects.

“You don’t have to say ‘Osama bin Laden’ at the White House, you just have to say ‘5 cents [a gallon]’ at the White House and they all run for cover,” Oberstar said.

A six-year reauthorization bill, which Oberstar said he expected his committee to mark up shortly after Congress returns from recess next month, would cost $450 billion—or $140 billion more than the current fuel tax can support.

To partially bridge the gap, and to allay the “the queasiness in the Washington political environment,” Oberstar said he would seek $60 billion in bonds from the Treasury Department for the Highway Trust Fund, and allow the fund to repay those bonds “after the economy has returned to two quarters of positive economic growth.”

Once the economy recovers, he said, a 5-cent-per-gallon increase in the fuel tax could also kick in, indexed to the highway construction cost index, “and that would generate the revenues we need out over the six years of this program.”

“I think that is a politically savvy way of trying to try to move a multiyear bill balanced against the concerns of the White House and perhaps members of Congress to be voting an increase in the fuel tax in a recession,” said ATA Senior Vice President Tim Lynch. “In essence, you get to move a bill which really defers the decision of increase until after we get out of this economic hole.”

ATA is one of several groups Oberstar said he has assembled to push for an increase in highway funding.

“We’ve been meeting periodically over the last few weeks and over the coming couple weeks of August, I’m hoping we can reach an agreement on a consensus plan that we all can rally around and then lead this administration into support of a financing mechanism,” Oberstar said. “Otherwise we’ll just pass it and roll over them.”

Oberstar added that Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) “has committed to giving us floor time by the third week of September.”

In addition to ATA, Oberstar mentioned the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, The Associated General Contractors of America and several trade unions as allies he had enlisted.

Brian Turmail, AGC spokes-man, said the construction trade group “is currently involved with some other organizations in meeting on a regular basis with the chairman and his staff to look at ways to craft the final portions of a six-year transportation bill.”

“To our knowledge, nothing’s been set at this point,” Turmail said, “but every option is on the table.”

Turmail said AGC supported “both right-sizing of current user fees and enhanced opportunities for state and local governments to tap into a range of funding vehicles including tolling, private activity bonds and public private partnerships.”

Even with Oberstar’s fiery rhetoric, prospects for a long-term bill may be dim because the Senate and White House “just don’t want to deal with this issue right now,” a transportation lobbyist, who asked not to be identified, told Transport Topics. The lobbyist noted that “the three committees with jurisdiction [in the Senate] have already reported bills that are simple 18-month extensions” without the program changes Oberstar wants.

Transport Topics, 8/17/2009