The ongoing struggle to improve the nation’s highways
As Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) spent a good portion of 2009 working on the highway funding bill that authorizes federal surface transportation programs for highways. At press time, work on the bill and the nation’s many infrastructure needs continued. Rep. Oberstar shared his insights on the year ahead with Road King.
Q: Despite your hard work, Congress was unable to pass a final highway measure before existing funding expired and issued an extension instead. When do you anticipate a final version of the bill?
A: Despite the continued efforts of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure to move forward with a long-term surface transportation authorization, the Senate and Administration have not come on board to tackle the difficult challenges facing the nation’s surface transportation system. My goal is to move the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 (STAA) through the House by the end of 2009 [Editor’s note: As of press time, the measure had not passed].
We cannot put off difficult choices for 18 months or longer, as some have suggested. Doing so undermines the operation and safety of the system truck drivers depend on, as well as the economic competitiveness of the nation as a whole.
Q: What are your top priorities as you continue working on the legislation?
A: Ensuring the integrity of the National Highway System is the utmost priority of this bill. The STAA focuses on bringing the nation’s surface transportation network into a state of good repair, as well as meeting the growing surface transportation trade volume that demands a seamlessly integrated intermodal network to move goods and people efficiently and reliably. It is essential that our transportation policies address the mounting congestion on the roadways that threatens the movement of goods and people.
The nation has been significantly underinvesting in its infrastructure. The STAA will put an end to this and provide the minimum investment necessary to improve safety, begin to restore the system to a state of good repair, and unlock congestion that is choking major segments of the network.
We need to establish performance targets and measures designed to achieve results and improve the transparency and accountability of transportation programs. I also plan to redefine the Federal role by consolidating or terminating more than 75 programs and organizing them to achieve specific national goals.
Q: While working on the highway bill have you seen an increased push to commercialize rest areas?
A: There have been a small number of efforts to overturn this prohibition. However, I believe the privatization of rest areas could affect the availability of private truck parking facilities along the impacted Interstate routes and negatively affect local communities and small businesses. The Committee objected to efforts to roll back this prohibition. Failure to sustain this principle will open the door to wider privatization of the Interstate System as a whole, which could lead to a balkanization of the nation’s roadway network.
Q: The highway trust fund, which pays for transportation projects and is funded through fuel taxes, is dwindling. What are your solutions for keeping it solvent?
A: The Federal motor fuel excise tax has not been increased since 1993. Over this period, purchasing power has been eroded by nearly 40 percent. By 2015, it is estimated that the gas tax’s purchasing power will be half what it was in 1993. This lack of political will to maintain purchasing power has undermined the highway trust fund and led to significant underinvestment in the nation’s highways.
Eroding purchasing power along with rising fuel economy standards make it important to seek alternative revenue sources for the fund’s long-term solvency. Several groups have called for short-term increases in dedicated user-fees. In the long-term, we must seek a new approach to funding our infrastructure.
Q: What role will tolls and public-private partnerships, whereby states sell roads to private firms that enact tolls, play?
A: Finding new revenue sources means all options must be on the table, including the use of public-private partnerships in limited circumstances. This is also the case for utilizing tolling on new major infrastructure projects, not on existing Interstate highways.
Innovative financing tools can supplement, not substitute, public investment in the nation’s surface transportation system. They cannot be confused for a silver-bullet solution to the investment gap we currently face. These financing mechanisms could be used where appropriate, but only in the best interest of public, not private investors.
The views expressed in Trucking Matters are those of the interview subject and do not necessarily reflect the views of Road King, its editors or affiliates of Road King. If you have questions for future Trucking Matters columns, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.