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Congress Gears Up for Big Transportation Bill

Wed April 29, 2009 - National Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) A House committee chairman wants to spend close to a half trillion dollars to solve the nation’s transportation woes, but first he has to sell the public on what they’ll get for their money before asking Congress to pay for it.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters April 24 he plans to introduce a six-year highway and transit construction bill some time in May and win swift House passage. The House likely will consider the gargantuan bill in early June.

“Until we are prepared to show the American public what we will deliver, how it will be done, how they can envision the future of transportation serving them better, I don’t think it’s appropriate to assess the cost,’’ Oberstar said.

There is a consensus in Congress that something major needs to be done about the transportation mess. People are spending more time in their cars trying to get to work — or anywhere, for that matter. Transit systems are carrying record numbers of riders and, in some cases, are cutting back service. Freight delays, both highway and rail, are costing industry and consumers billions of dollars. An alarming share of the nation’s highways, bridges, tunnels, and train cars have aged beyond their intended life and are in disrepair.

“It is clear we need more revenue in the system, more investment dollars, but we can’t just say to people, ’do this, do that.’ We have to show what we’re going to do with this program, how we are going to make it more responsive to their needs,’’ Oberstar said earlier in an interview. “If people see that, then they’ll support it.’’

The federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for the program, is expected to run out of money some time this summer. The fund depends on gas taxes, but revenue has dropped dramatically because people are driving less. Congress had to transfer $8 billion from the general treasury last fall to keep highway programs going.

John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said the association estimates another transfer will be needed by July or August to keep current highway programs through Sept. 30. That’s when the current $286 billion program, approved in 2005, is due to expire.

Two congressionally mandated commissions have recommended hefty increases in the federal 18.4-cent gas tax as the only logical solution. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the White House have rejected the idea outright.

“Secretary LaHood believes that in tough economic times, it makes no sense to raise gasoline taxes when families are already struggling to get by,’’ said Jill Zuckman, a spokeswoman of the department.

Oberstar said the administration’s policy on a gas tax increase was generated by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has little expertise on transportation policy.

“What are they doing over at OMB? Are they engaging in prayer sessions or seances?’’ Oberstar told reporters. “Secretary LaHood is saying what he’s told to say by the Office of Management and Budget.’’

Transportation bills are historically one of Washington’s heavyweight lobbying battles. Already lined up trying to help push a bill — and to try to shape it to their advantage — are the trucking and construction industries, environmentalists, “smart growth’’ advocates, labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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