James L. Oberstar: The truth about my position on bridges infrastructure

  • Article by: JAMES L. OBERSTAR
  • Updated: September 7, 2007 - 6:27 PM

The things I support are in the public interest, and I've been at it a long time.

If you believe Katherine Kersten, I am single-handedly responsible for the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge. She paints a picture of me as a modern Slovenian-American Nero, cheerfully pedaling, rather than fiddling, in the face of disaster.

According to her Aug. 23 column, I paid little attention to bridges before Aug. 1. But I don't recall reading any Katherine Kersten columns about bridge safety before the collapse, either.

Here is the cold, hard truth: I was promoting bridge safety before bridge safety was cool, to paraphrase the country song. I have been calling for greater investment in our transportation infrastructure all my professional life.

Kersten insinuates that the bridge failed because I brought money into the state for other things, such as light-rail lines to relieve traffic congestion in the Twin Cities (not in my congressional district, by the way); bike and pedestrian trails (in the Twin Cities and in my district) to provide transportation and recreational opportunities and promote economic development, and highway reconstruction projects in my district to correct unsafe road conditions and save people's lives. How appalling!

The projects I championed all serve the public interest, and I stand by every one of them. They were included in a surface transportation bill designed to invest in a variety of modes, including nonmotorized transportation.

The metro area is the economic, political, media, population and, yes, transportation hub of Minnesota. Often, however, the sheer gravitational pull of this area keeps government services from adequately reaching other parts of the state.

Roughly half the population of Minnesota lives outside of the metro area, in places without the skyscrapers, stadiums and star power of Minneapolis-St. Paul. These hard-working, tax-paying, play-by-the-rules Minnesotans have every right to ask their elected officials, including their members of Congress, to help them get the services they need.

The projects I supported did not spring from my imagination. They were brought to me by state, county and municipal officials, chambers of commerce and individual citizens who made a valid case for each of them. I responded as an elected representative should.

This country is facing a huge deficit in transportation infrastructure. The 18.4-cent federal tax on a gallon of gasoline has stayed flat for 14 years. There are few things that cost the same or less today than they did 14 years ago, but we can't pave highways and build bridges with computers and cell phones. We need steel, stone and heavy equipment, which are much costlier today than in 1993.

In 2002, when we were drafting the surface transportation bill popularly known as SAFETEA-LU, my colleagues and I -- Democrats and Republicans -- proposed a 5-cent increase in the fuel tax to make up for the buying power lost to inflation. Our proposal met with stiff opposition from the White House. Instead we were forced to accept a bill that fell some $90 billion short of our needs, and our infrastructure deficit grows because of it.

A 5-cent increase would have cost the average driver less than a dollar a week. In the meantime, the price of gasoline has increased by more than a dollar a gallon. And none of that increase goes to a public purpose. It goes to OPEC.

After the I-35W collapse, I developed a National Highway System Bridge Initiative to address the problem of deteriorating bridge structures. This initiative has four components: raise the standards for bridge inspections and increase training and provide new technologies for bridge inspectors; create a trust fund to finance the repair, rehabilitation or replacement of deteriorating bridges; distribute funding on the basis of safety and need -- with no earmarks allowed, and create a dedicated revenue stream to keep that trust fund solvent.

I suggested a return to the 5-cent fuel tax increase because I believe it is the most fair and appropriate source for this revenue. But, while the tax increase is not a central component of the bridge initiative -- there are other sources to consider -- it is the part that has gotten the most attention from the media and drawn the most fire from critics. That's unfortunate.

My staff and I spent a good deal of time talking with Kersten as she prepared to write her column. Unfortunately, she chose not to let the facts get in the way of a good rant. Instead, she wove a political fairy tale, and decided to cast me as the ogre under the bridge.

All just to save a nickel.

James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., is chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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