here for PDF format
Participant Responses to This
of Meeting with Rep. Jim Oberstar
8301 Creekside Circle,
Bloomington, MN 55437
Sunday, April 6,
Rep. Jim Oberstar,
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
Charles Clay, Phil Cohen, Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland, Melissa Jabas, and
Context of the meeting--The
Civic Caucus has been exploring the question of leadership on regional and
statewide transportation policy in
Today we're meeting with who might be the most influential member of
Congress on transportation.
Welcome and introduction--Verne
and Paul welcomed and introduced U. S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, chair, House
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Oberstar, representing the
8th Congressional District in Minnesota, has served longer in the U. S.
House than any other Minnesotan. He now is in his 17th term, having been
elected first in 1974.
Oberstar is a native
of Chisholm, MN, and a 1954 graduate of the College of St. Thomas. He has
a master's degree from the College of Europe, in Belgium, in 1957. He
taught English from 1959 to 1963 to Haitian military personnel in Haiti.
He served as chief staff assistant to his predecessor, Congressman John
Blatnik, from 1963 to 1974.
Comments and discussion--During
Oberstar's comments and in discussion with the Civic Caucus the following
points were raised:
1. Major milestones in transportation history--Oberstar
outlined four past milestones in transportation history in the U.S.A., and
said the nation will shortly experience its fifth milestone.
1894--When petitions from150,000 bicyclists and
others resulted in the first appropriation, $10,000, for the Office of
Road Inquiry within the Department of Agriculture.
1916--When "to get the farmers out of the mud"
Congress passed the Federal- Aid Road Act of 1916. It created the
Federal-Aid Highway Program under which funds were made available on a
continuous basis to state highway agencies to assist in road improvements.
1956--Creation of the interstate highway system.
1991--Passage of the Inter-modal Transportation
Sufficiency Act, giving transit access to transportation funds that
previously were available to highways only. Today 18 percent of federal
transportation trust funds are available to transit.
1991 act was enacted to develop a national inter-modal surface
transportation system. Funds were authorized for the construction of
highways, and for highway safety and mass transit programs. The purpose of
the National Inter-modal Transportation System is to connect all forms of
transportation to reduce energy consumption and air pollution, while
promoting economic development and supporting international commerce.
2. The emerging milestone--The
fifth, emerging milestone, Oberstar said, will occur in 2009, with new
legislation that is necessary to reauthorize existing highway law. He
believes the new milestone will restore what has been lost in inter-modalism
since 1991 and to engage the energy of people in determining the future of
transportation. All existing programs are up for review in the new
environment, he said.
criteria for eligibility for rail transit will be rewritten, he said. The
inclusiveness of projects and their broader impact on the community will
3. Transit has been undermined by the current
Administration--Oberstar said the current Administration in
Washington, D. C., has done its best to undermine transit. For example,
he said, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) relies on a too-limited
approach in approving transit projects. The FTA uses what is known as a
"cost effectiveness index" that looks only at some limited criteria, such
as how many cars will be taken off the road by a proposed transit
illustrate the importance of development impact for transit, Oberstar
cited a light rail transit line (DART) extending west from downtown
Dallas, TX, with 20 stations that has generated some $1 billion of venture
capital. Some 48 percent of jobs in downtown Dallas depend upon DART, he
said. DART has about 66 million riders a year.
4. Importance of local zoning--Comparing
the Dallas experience with that of the Hiawatha line in
a participant noted that the Minneapolis City Council has not been all
that willing to allow higher density development in the vicinity of
transit stations. The kind of development that Dallas has requires
comparable zoning. It was noted that the city of Dallas has an ownership
in the DART line, while
itself isn't the owner of the Hiawatha line.
5. Outlook for growth in federal transportation
trust fund--The federal gasoline tax, the main source of
dollars for the trust fund, has not been increased since 1993. Since
then increases in construction costs have eroded about 47 percent of the
construction dollar. Thus, today, a penny-a-gallon increase in the
gasoline tax will buy one-half the construction it would have bought in
favors an increase in the federal gasoline tax on the order of 25 cents a
gallon, and with that amount indexed to the future. A penny-a-gallon
increase nationally will raise about $1.8 billion a year, he said.
transportation trust fund dollars pay 80 percent of the cost of approved
highway projects. The percentage paid for transit projects varies, he
said. The federal share of the Hiawatha line construction was 50 percent,
the same as proposed for the Central Corridor along University Avenue
between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
6. Ability to use the gasoline tax for transit--A
Civic Caucus member noted that the state gasoline tax in Minnesota is
dedicated to highways. A constitutional amendment would be necessary for
any of those funds to be used for transit. Oberstar observed that at the
federal level, too, road interests have contended that the gasoline tax is
7. Potential for other revenue sources--In
response to a question about whether the federal government is looking at
other sources besides the gasoline tax for the transportation trust fund,
Oberstar said he is looking closely at a one-year-old experiment in
Oregon, now under way, to develop a tax based on vehicle miles traveled.
The state has had some difficulty in implementing such a tax, including
concerns over privacy, but he thinks that the idea makes some sense.
He'd also be interested in having the tax relate to weight of vehicles,
too, because heavier vehicles impose more damage on roads.
8. Difficultly in sorting out roles of
transportation jurisdictions--Martin Sabo, former member of
Congress, said he never could understand how the various jurisdictions
responsible for transportation in the metro area related to one another.
Oberstar replied that better planning is necessary between the state
departments of transportation and the federal transportation agencies, and
in the process the people affected locally must be involved.
9. Capturing increase in land values--In
a follow-up to earlier discussion about use of transit to guide
development, Oberstar was asked whether increases in land values that
landowners enjoy when highway interchanges and transit stations are built
nearby should be used to help pay for the highway and transit
improvements. Oberstar replied that in the past federal policy has been
mainly concerned with protecting landowners who are dislocated when their
land is taken for freeways or rail lines.
10. Opposition to congestion pricing--Oberstar
said he is doing all he can to kill the idea of using tolls or other
pricing mechanisms to reduce congestion. He is critical of the idea
because it doesn't increase capacity and places cost on people least able
to afford it. He's also concerned that once you start with toll roads
you might follow the precedent in
which has leased its toll road to a private foreign company for 99 years.
the pricing discussion, Oberstar was asked whether the vehicle miles
traveled concept being tried in
might be modified to allow different prices depending upon the time of day
and the location of the vehicle miles traveled. He replied that he
is having major problems in computerizing the system.
11. "Earmarking" by members of Congress
defended--Oberstar said that his committee submits a 17-point
questionnaire to each member of the House, concerning transportation
projects in their districts that they are requesting to be specifically
authorized in federal law, that is, "earmarked". A project needs to be
on track to be completed within six years; the non-federal match must be
available; necessary environmental, engineering and right-of-way work must
be completed, and the project must be part of a state plan, approved by a
local government agency, and supported by local interests.
"bridge to nowhere" controversy, in which the Governor of Alaska requested
a bridge from
Anchorage to a
sparsely-populated island, has given earmarking a bad name, Oberstar said.
recalled an experience he had in Chisago City, MN, where people were
complaining that Hwy. 8 wasn't upgraded and, the complainers alleged,
MnDOT wasn't providing help. He stepped in and arranged for all the
parties at interest to come together, and the project got programmed.
12. Proposed rail transit projects will be
approved--Oberstar said that Congress in 2009 will redesign the
formula for approval of rail transit projects so that the various rail
projects proposed for
will be built.
Caucus member noted that some critics of the Central Corridor LRT between
the downtowns are contending that the LRT line would only be marginally
faster than the existing bus line on that route.
13. Change in decision-making process--Oberstar
said he agrees that decision-making on transportation needs change and
revitalization at the state level. He urged that the Civic Caucus talk
with Elwyn Tinklenberg, former state commissioner of transportation, who
made some creative proposals to then-Governor Ventura, who chose not to
leadership at all levels within the state, Oberstar said. Fragmentation
within metropolitan areas exists nationally, he said, and varies among
metropolitan areas. He said MnDOT has not been providing adequate
leadership; it has lost hundreds of engineers from its staff over the last
said that within the metropolitan area the Metropolitan Council's
flexibility is limited. Recommendations on transportation priorities come
to the Council from its Transportation Advisory Board (TAB), which is made
up of officials of various units of local government. The Council may
approve or reject recommendations from the TAB, but it may not modify the
recommendations, Cohen said. The reason is that the Metropolitan Council
is not a council of governments.
14. Over-emphasis on service to the downtowns?--A
Civic Caucus member asked why so much attention is given to rail service
to the downtowns, when only 15 percent of the work trips are destined for
the downtowns. Moreover, more congestion is present for people who are
going to non-downtown destinations. Oberstar replied that each
jurisdiction must do its own planning. Metro areas don't just make
applications because of the availability of federal funds, he said. He
cited an example of a 38-mile light rail line planned for
costing $3.4 billion. The new line will serve some 58 percent of the jobs
and accommodate 70 percent of new growth, he said.
15. Setting transit and highway priorities
together?--A member inquired
whether the federal government should restore its requirements for
coordinated planning that were in existence in the 1960s. It's
theoretically possible that the same jurisdiction could evaluate transit
and highway projects and assign priorities based on which projects will do
the most to meet agreed-upon objectives, Oberstar said. He feels that
Denver, Portland, and Los Angeles are three metropolitan areas that seem
to do the best in a unified approach, rather than treating transit and
highways as separate, competing, entities.
16. Thanks--On behalf of the Civic
Caucus, Verne thanked Oberstar for meeting with us tonight.