WASHINGTON — The Nov. 2 elections marked the end of an era, as far as Congress and American transportation policy are concerned.
In one the real shockers of the Republican capture of the House, Transportation Chairman Jim Oberstar — after holding his Minnesota seat for 18 terms — lost Nov. 2 to retired airline Pilot Chip Cravaack.
Oberstar, having worked on the transportation committee staff for 12 years before being elected to Congress, will take nearly 50 years of valuable experience out the door with him.
Rep. Laura Richardson, D.-Calif., called Oberstar’s knowledge of transportation “legendary.”
“From wings to wheels, propellers to pedals, there is no mode of transportation that Chairman Oberstar has not passionately worked to improve,” Richardson said in a National Journal transportation “experts blog” post.
Rep. John Garamendi, another California Democrat on the transportation committee, said “it is difficult to imagine” tackling long-term transportation legislation without Oberstar.
“For over four decades, Chairman Jim Oberstar has spearheaded the construction of modern America,” Garamendi said. “With brains and brawn, he has built a remarkable road for America’s future prosperity. You could say the man’s got street smarts.”
Emil H. Frankel, director of transportation policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center, noted that Oberstar had always been respectful of his ideas, even though the two often had “different views” on politics and policy.
“It has been impossible to think of shaping national transportation policy without reference to Congressman Oberstar,” Frankel said. “Agree with him or not, everyone in Washington will miss Oberstar's persistent and constructive engagement on these issues. As they say of truly great athletes, Jim Oberstar made everyone around him better.”
Or, more succinctly, “Transportation policy and legislation without Jim Oberstar?” posed Mortimer Downey, who was reported to have been on Obama’s short list for DOT secretary. “Not something I want to think about.”
The gamut of transportation special interests also came forward to praise the chairman.
Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa said the union was “very saddened” by Oberstar’s defeat, crediting him for questioning FedEx’s status as an airline and for being “a tireless advocate for truck safety.”
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety Vice President Jacqueline Gillan called Oberstar’s defeat “a devastating loss to the highway safety community and to our nation,” noting his mandating electronic logs for commercial vehicles in the committee’s draft of the next highway authorization bill.
And John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials called Oberstar “a tremendous public servant” who “practically invented the term ‘livability.’”
So what does Oberstar himself say about his legacy and the future of transportation issues in Congress? Simply, he regrets that his committee’s work on a comprehensive, long-term surface transportation package went nowhere — stuck in federal budget traffic jam.
“I feel there’s a big hole in the legislative agenda not having completed that work,” Oberstar said, referring to the bill reported from the highways subcommittee in June 2009.
In a farewell session with the transportation press, Oberstar called for a one-year extension of the current highway plan rather than a series of shorter, last-minute renewals of the 2005 program originally set to expire Sept. 30, 2009. The sixth extension of SAFETEA-LU runs out at the end of this year.
The discussion — or more accurately, a masterly disquisition on all things transportation — ranged from Oberstar’s noting that the very first acts of the newly formed U.S Congress were for transportation projects (lighthouses) and how to pay for them (shipping fees), to a multi-lingual account of a recent trip to Europe.
Recalling his visit to France, Oberstar raved about the high-speed passenger trains and noted Europeans didn’t seem to have a problem with taxing fuel $3 to $4 more a gallon to support long-term transportation infrastructure improvements.
“We’re just sitting on the sidelines while they’re eating our lunch,” Oberstar said.
The potential problem for any transportation plan is that the new Republican-controlled House is likely to focus on spending cuts, and the White House has already ruled out a fuel tax increase — so a bill anywhere close to the $500 billion or so Oberstar’s plan would have cost is unlikely to gain much support.
“Moving forward on the funding issue is the Gordian knot of the future surface transportation,” Oberstar said, adding that “the whole issue would have been history” if the administration had followed a 2009 funding commission recommendation for a 25-cent-per-gallon fuel tax.
He also noted that fuel taxes, which should be considered “user fees,” were raised by Republican presidents: Eisenhower in 1956, Regan in 1982 and George H.W. Bush in 1990.
“But that apparently is not good enough for today’s Republicans,” Oberstar said.
And the Republican pledge for a blanket ban on earmarks is “a simplistic notion” when it comes to transportation, Oberstar added, objecting to the notion that members of Congress should not have their say on home district projects — leaving “the people of the country without a voice.”
Instead, he called for a continuation of the transportation committee’s “step-by-step” procedures, which call for bipartisanship and openness in funding projects.
Indeed, Oberstar voiced a serious concern about how the House turnover will impact transportation policy moving forward, notably the lack of broader vision of the future. Still, the lame-duck chairman hopes to have some say about those larger ideas and ideals, though he did not specify his personal plans.
Oberstar ruled out a lobbying career, but he is rumored to be under consideration for a transportation position in the Obama administration.
“I think you’ll see coming in a lack of institutional understanding, and it appears to be a lack of willingness to follow seasoned leaders. There is little appetite for, or appreciation of, the broader policy questions that the nation faces in transportation,” Oberstar said. “Absent ideas, the process itself will founder.”
Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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