Oberstar Slams Obama Administration on Transportation Reauthorization

Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar, chair of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is not happy with the Obama Administration’s decision to delay the six-year transportation reauthorization process until 2010. He took the Obama Administration to task last week at a speech at the University of Minnesota, according to a report in the Minnesota business newswpaper Finance and Commerce:

Rep. Jim Oberstar isn’t hiding his frustrations with the White House these days.

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Democrat aimed some pointed barbs at the Obama administration, which favors an 18-month extension to the current transportation spending bill as an alternative to a six-year, $500 billion package introduced by the Minnesota Democrat this summer.

“The ‘yes we can, change you can believe in’ White House ran for cover,” Oberstar said during a presentation at the University of Minnesota. “I am not going to sugarcoat. … I thought the administration would like [this $500 billion plan], too. Instead, they ran for cover.”

Oberstar, head of the House Transportation Committee, added that an 18-month delay in Washington “is an enemy of progress.”

The Obama Administration claims it has too much on its plate already with climate change legislation, health care reform, and the economy. Transportation simply isn’t high on its agenda.

Indeed, this was evident to me when Obama appointed Ray LaHood as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Secretary LaHood is an effective politician, but he knowledge of transportation policy (by his own admission) is shallow. From the Obama Administration’s perspective, transportation policy is about jobs and the stimulus package. Efficiency and mobility are secondary considerations.

It also seems clear by the narrow, partisan way the Obama Administration is approaching infrastructure finance. Rather than looking for long-term solutions to the transportation funding quagmire created by falling gas tax revenues, it is simply shutting down debate and discussion until the Administration gets around to it.

The article notes:

Obama has also been cool to the idea of raising the federal gas tax — a key revenue source for transportation projects — in keeping with his promise not to raise taxes on families making more than $250,000 a year.

Elected officials from both parties may be loath to raise the gas tax until after the mid-term elections in 2010.

Oberstar is unmoved.

In the 1950s, he noted, Congress overwhelmingly voted to raise the gas tax three cents — at a time when gas cost 30 cents a gallon — to pay for highway projects. Later, Congress raised it an additional one cent per gallon on a voice vote, he said.

Alluding to the president’s gas tax position, Oberstar said, “You don’t have to say ‘Osama bin Laden’ at the White House. Just say ‘five cents.’ They all run for cover.”

There are very good reasons why we might be better off by delaying transportation reauthorization–the current legislation proposed by Oberstar would further centralize decisionmaking over transportation investments, move away from public-private partnerships in favor of government sponsored funding alternatives, and increases taxes significantly–but it’s hard not to sympathize with Oberstar’s frustration with an Administration that seems intent on further centralizing presidential authority and power at the expense of a meaingful discussion over long-term solutions to pressing national problems.