Oberstar Pressing the Accelerator on Highway Bill

Posted June 19, 2009 at 6:13pm

Bucking the White House, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) will begin an uphill push this week to pass by October a $500 billion federal highway bill that Congress is not sure how to finance.

Oberstar will start the process with a Wednesday markup in the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. But last week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called for delaying that work and proposed an 18-month extension of the current highway bill — putting the White House and lawmakers on a collision course.

“This is the first time in 46 years that the administration has asked Congress for a delay in a transportation bill,— said a frustrated Oberstar, who late last year dismissed interest in becoming Transportation secretary because he wanted to oversee the writing of the highway legislation.

The highway bill is a multiyear authorization that sets transportation policy and funds thousands of federal road and infrastructure projects, making it a favorite with lawmakers. The last bill, a five-year plan passed in 2005, cost $286.4 billion and funded more than 6,000 projects. The measure expires Oct. 1.

LaHood has pushed for delaying the legislation to give Congress more time to come up with a viable way to fund it. The federal Highway Trust Fund, the main source of money for the nation’s infrastructure projects, is expected to run a $5 billion to $7 billion shortfall by the end of August because of a dip in revenue from gas taxes.

So far, Oberstar and other highway bill backers have offered up two politically charged options to refill the trust fund. One proposal calls for a new tax on vehicle miles driven, while the other would raise existing taxes on gas. Both ideas have been roundly dismissed by the White House.

That hasn’t deterred Oberstar, who said the White House has a “fundamental lack of understanding of the surface transportation program— and suggested creating a “Head Start [program] to teach them.—

Oberstar said his calls to the White House to discuss the highway bill have gone unanswered. “They need to engage us,— he said.

“Secretary LaHood and the White House have discussed the bill with Chairman Oberstar and his staff many times, and we all look forward to working closely with him in the coming weeks,— DOT press secretary Sasha Johnson said.

Oberstar and fellow panel members have been adamant about getting the bill done by the end of September, calling an extension “unacceptable— and warning it would cause chaos for states trying to plan long-term road and other infrastructure projects.

“We have to get this bill done,— said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a member of the panel. “It makes no sense to do a stopgap.—

Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member John Mica (R-Fla.) said he, too, backs the effort to complete the bill this fall. He said there are other ways to pay for the legislation beyond the proposed taxes, but he declined to elaborate.

“Don’t underestimate us,— Mica said.

Another GOP committee member, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (Mich.), would not rule out new taxes and said the “public has to stop trying to get something for nothing.— Nadler said other avenues for revenue could include a container tax or an oil refinery tax and said the vehicle mileage tax “may be a good idea in the end.—

Aside from financing, Oberstar must navigate a daunting floor schedule with a climate change measure, annual spending bills and health reform legislation set to dominate the Congressional calendar.

The transportation bill is already facing criticism over its price tag from Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the House’s outspoken earmark opponent, who called the measure “completely irresponsible.— He argued that many states don’t get their fair share of highway dollars based on federal formulas and that money is doled out for political reasons.

“This bill is a recipe for fiscal disaster,— Flake said.

But Oberstar and Nadler argue the bill is far from a compilation of politically driven projects and insist this year’s proposal would make major changes in how transportation projects are funded and carried out.

Nadler said the bill would cut the number of federal formulas used to disburse cash to states from 108 to four and would streamline the construction process by giving projects only three years, instead of the current 14 years, to be completed.

Oberstar had hoped to complete committee work on the bill by the July Fourth recess, but delays in drafting the measure will push the panel’s work further into the summer. The Ways and Means Committee also would weigh in on tax issues.