February 4, 2008 7:55 AM, EST

Oberstar Criticizes Administration on Handling of Transport Issues

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter
This story appears in the Feb. 4 print edition of Transport Topics.
WASHINGTON — The Democratic chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, in a speech to American Trucking Associations’ winter meeting here, delivered a scathing criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of transportation issues as he backed the report of a congressional commission that called for major federal spending on infrastructure funded by fuel-tax increases.
Rep. James Oberstar, (D-Minn.) received a standing ovation at ATA’s annual leadership meeting when he showed support for the commission’s report that rejected many of the positions advocated by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who insisted on pushing for highway privatization and more tolls, and opposed raising fuel taxes.
“I share the commission’s view that we are at a crossroads,” Oberstar said, adding that the panel reached a consensus on the need for more investment and higher fuel taxes “by a 9-to-3 vote, with the secretary of transportation being in the minority.”
“If you take an ideological position, you won’t move, you won’t adjust — well, then, that’s what happens to you,” Oberstar said.
Since the commission reported last month, Peters has publicly challenged its recommendations of a 25-cent-to-40-cent fuel tax increase and a stronger federal role in transportation (1-21, p. 1).
Those recommendations, Oberstar said, “caused the secretary to pout and go off on her own and say, ‘I’m not going to sign this report.’ ”
Peters also declined to testify about the report before his committee, Oberstar added.
He also blasted the Department of Transportation’s emphasis on tolling and public-private partnerships.
“We’re going to need privatization, in circumstances where it makes sense, but to have an overemphasis, as this administration has done, on tolls and congestion pricing doesn’t make any sense,” he told ATA in remarks interrupted by applause.
Oberstar listed the various funding options the commission endorsed — public-private partnerships, high-occupancy toll lanes and congestion pricing — but added that “when they say that about trucking, I say they are making a mistake.”
Last year, Oberstar and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the highways subcommittee, worked to block various types of public-private partnerships, notably leasing existing assets and converting currently free highways to toll roads.
Oberstar told ATA that highway delays were “a congestion tax,” then told the trucking group about the effects of gridlock on just one company.
“General Mills spends almost $650 million a year to move its products to market, and they calculated that, for every mile per hour below the posted speed limit their trucks move, they lose $2 million,” he said.
Speaking later with reporters about how to avoid legislative delays that plagued congressional action on highway legislation, Oberstar said, “The lesson learned is, don’t have the Bush administration in charge. And they won’t be. That’s good news for transportation.”
“I’m not so much taking aim at states as I am at this administration,” Oberstar said. “This Bush administration is trying in many ways to, as it leaves town . . . to put in play a regulatory scheme that will be difficult to undo long after they are gone.”
He highlighted administration efforts on congestion pricing, public-private partnerships and tolling, “all done by the private sector,” and “conversion of existing capacity to tolled facilities that doesn’t add anything to our competitive ability. It does not add miles to our transportation capacity into the system.”
“States,” Oberstar said, “are being bludgeoned, blackmailed by this administration. They are offering money to states and metropolitan areas to be invested in congestion pricing mechanisms [and saying,] ‘If you don’t take this money and do this with it — congestion pricing, tolling and P3s [public-private partnerships] — then we won’t give it to you.”
“I’m just determined we’re going to offset those initiatives,” he said.
DeFazio told reporters the transportation committee had “begun to peel back some of the veneer” DOT had put on privatization, which it promoted “as the solution to all our nation’s transportation problems.”
Citing statistics from DOT, DeFazio said congestion costs Americans $200 billion, but he said that when Peters “reached that conclusion, [she] then said the federal government has no role in dealing with it, which is kind of unfortunate.”
DeFazio, commenting on Peters’ failure to testify on the infrastructure committee report, said the panel “hopes to entertain her very soon,” and “dive into how the free hand of the market is going to solve all these problems.”