Well Said, Therefore Everyone Listen
Until I-35W disaster, Oberstar's funding focus wasn't on bridges
By Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune
In the wake of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, DFL leaders want to raise the state gas tax to fund transportation needs.
At the same time, Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar -- the powerful chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee -- has called for a "temporary" 5-cent increase in the federal gas tax to raise what he says is a critically needed $25 billion over three years for a national bridge-repair trust fund.
"If you're not prepared to invest another five cents in bridge reconstruction and road reconstruction, then God help you," he said after the bridge collapse.
Polls suggest that ordinary folks aren't convinced of a divine mandate for higher taxes. Most likely, they're skeptical about how our pols are stewarding current transportation funds.
Oberstar is Exhibit A. He's long been well-positioned to help steer funds toward bridge safety, and has known of the seriousness of the problem since he held hearings on bridge conditions 20 years ago, he says. But he's had other priorities.
For example, on July 25 -- a week before the bridge collapse -- Oberstar issued a press release announcing his latest coup for Minnesota.
He had obtained more than $12 million for his home state in a recently passed House transportation and housing bill. Commuter rail was the big winner, getting $10 million. The Cambridge-Isanti Bike/Walk Trail got $250,000, and the KidsPeace Mesabi Academy in Buhl got $150,000. Only $2 million went for meat-and-potatoes road improvements.
Not a penny was slated for bridge repair.
Transportation funding is the epitome of pork-barrel politics. It's notorious for earmarks -- items that politicians insert into bills to finance pet projects in their districts.
Critics call it a spoils system that distributes money based on political clout rather than transportation need.
The 2005 federal transportation bill illustrates the extent of the problem. The $286 billion bill included a record 6,373 earmarks, up from a handful in 1982.
Oberstar played a lead role in crafting the 2005 bill as ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee. In the bill, Congress allocated about $4 billion a year for bridge reconstruction and maintenance. It designated about the same amount -- about $24 billion over a five-year period -- for member earmarks in a bipartisan porkfest.
Ironically, $24 billion is almost exactly the amount that Oberstar now says we must raise through new taxes to prevent future bridge collapses.
Oberstar's earmarks were among the highest for any member, totaling $250 million. What did they fund?
Not repair of the I-35W bridge, though the state had identified cracks in the bridge as a major concern in 1999. Oberstar's earmarks, which included many road-related projects, also provided $25 million for Twin Cities bicycle and pedestrian trails and lanes, and such "high priority" items as $471,000 for the Edge of Wilderness Discovery Center in Marcell.
A bridge - but not for vehicles
Oh, and he did slip in $1.5 million for a new bridge in Baxter -- for the Paul Bunyan bike trail.
Oberstar, an avid cyclist, has lavished federal gas-tax dollars on bike trails for years. In 1991, he spearheaded legislation that first allowed Highway Trust Fund monies to flow to state bike trails.
Now Oberstar has taken his enthusiasm for bikes a step further. He recently amended a federal aviation law to allow airports to spend federal funds on bike storage facilities. (Now there's a pressing need we don't want to underfund.)
Could Oberstar be changing his earmark-happy ways? The bridge repair trust fund that he proposed after the I-35W collapse will prohibit earmarks. "I'm challenging everyone to break with the paradigm of the past -- to meet a higher standard," he said.
Does that mean that earmarks have been bad policy all along? Not at all, says Oberstar. "Citizens have a right to petition for redress of grievances. What are we, chopped liver in greater Minnesota? When the state bureaucracy won't fund projects that people need, they come to me for help."
Do we need new taxes to keep our bridges and roads safe? Minnesota reaped a bountiful $3.5 billion from the 2005 federal transportation bill, up almost $1 billion from its allocation under the previous highway bill. The Star Tribune called it a "cornucopia of big-bucks transportation" benefits.
At the state level, Minnesota spends almost twice as much today as it did just 10 years ago.
More taxes? How about doing a better job with what we've got?
Enough said. No new taxes. Get the priorities right.
Rep. Jeremy Kalin (DFL-17B) and Sen. Rick Olseen (DFL-17) are you listening?
Also read this wise commentary by David Strom.