WASHINGTON - Nearly two years after the fall of the Interstate 35W bridge called attention to the condition of America's infrastructure, Congress hasn't settled on how it will pay to bring the nation's aging transportation network into the 21st century.
Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, the powerful chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is crafting a plan to reinvent federal transportation policy in sweeping legislation that would integrate the nation's highways, bridges and transit systems.
The cost is about $450 billion over six years, nearly a doubling of the nation's current investment in infrastructure. But Oberstar's blueprint, still under construction, is silent on the key question of where the money will come from.
"What is it going to cost to deliver this? That's an issue you have to put off till the end," Oberstar said of the bill, which he expects to roll out in the coming days. "You can't talk investments and dollar amounts until you have something to show the public."
Oberstar, 74, now in his fourth decade in Congress, is looking for a piece of legacy legislation, and his bill for what he calls the "post-interstate era" clearly presents that opportunity. If all goes according to an 80-page white paper he releases today, the future of transportation might look a lot like the rebuilding of the 35W bridge, which turbocharged the bureaucracy and was finished in 437 days.
Now Oberstar wants to do the same for rail and transit projects designed to halt the spread of traffic congestion across America, including the Twin Cities, where the Central Corridor light-rail project and the Northstar commuter rail line are in the offing.
"This is a critical time for transportation," said James Corless, director of Transportation for America, a coalition of more than 300 national organizations, from the AARP to the National Association of Realtors. "The next transportation bill is fundamental to really reshaping and rethinking the nation's approach to transportation policy."
Congress writes major multi-billion-dollar transportation bills every six years. But big, transformative ideas arise only once every few decades. Analysts say the last major innovation was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which set the course for the 45,000-mile network of superhighways linking the nation today.
That system is now badly in need of maintenance and repair.
But the national gasoline tax that has funded the Highway Trust Fund until now is running on fumes. With motorists driving less and demanding more fuel-efficient cars, there are fewer dollars going to the fund.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, saying the trust fund will run out of money in August, called Wednesday for Congress to delay a highway bill and turn its attention to immediate measures to make the fund solvent.
But in the face of a bad economy and rising gas prices, both the Obama administration and Congress remain reluctant to increase the 18.4 cents-per-gallon excise tax that drivers pay at the pump. Lawmakers are looking at other ideas, such as toll roads and consumption taxes based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT). So far, no consensus has emerged.
Some Republicans on his committee like the idea of tolls, but Oberstar argues that tolls require motorists to pay twice: once at the pump, and then on the road. Plus, critics say tolls don't distinguish between gas-guzzling Hummers and fuel-efficient hybrids.
Oberstar says a gas tax hike is on the table, but with gasoline use projected to decline in the next decade, it would still not be the stable revenue source he needs.
The VMT idea is based on vehicle-miles driven, but the technology has privacy implications that could make it a hard sell with the public.
In recent meetings with transit advocates, Oberstar, an avid cyclist, has said he wants to encourage the building of "inter-modal" transportation hubs weaving together automobile, train and light-rail systems into a seamless network.
High price tag
Cost estimates on Oberstar's bill range between $400 billion and $500 billion over the next six years, nearly double the $286 billion Congress put into the current slate of federal transportation programs, which expires Sept. 30.
Rep. John Mica of Florida, the ranking Republican on the Transportation Committee, said he can see going up to as much as $900 billion, even without a gas tax increase.
Mica, like Oberstar, sees the 35W bridge reconstruction as a model for the bureaucratic streamlining and efficiencies he believes are possible. "We have an agreement to speed up the process," he said.
Oberstar also wants to minimize pork barrel projects such as Alaska's infamous "Bridge to Nowhere." But he and other lawmakers have already made billions of dollars in home-state earmarks requests.
Oberstar's earmarks would total $112 million, most in his northern Minnesota district. Also hanging in the balance for Minnesota is a request for a $150 million extension of the Northstar commuter rail line from Minneapolis to St. Cloud.
"He's had a lot of time to look at new ideas," said Christine Goepfert, a Minnesota field organizer who has met with Oberstar as a member of the influential Transportation for America coalition. "He's trying to think big."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2763