Oberstar's gas tax may hit some political potholes

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 11, 2007 - 12:17 AM

Iron Range Rep. Jim Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee, wants a 5-cent-a-gallon increase to shore up the nation's bridges. But his long-sought proposal will be a tough sell in Washington.

WASHINGTON - It's the cash, not the corrosion.

Lawmakers returning to Washington next month aren't likely to disagree that the nation's aging roads and bridges need some expensive TLC. The fight will be over the money to pay for it.

Driving the debate will be Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, the powerful House Transportation Committee chairman who has suggested a temporary 5-cent-a-gallon gas tax for a national reconstruction program.

But if Oberstar's idea were a car, it would be headed for some familiar political potholes.

President Bush, championing the Republican Party's opposition to new taxes, has assailed Oberstar's idea, saying Congress should reorder its spending priorities first.

Some Democrats appear no more eager to climb on board what could be seen as a preelection-year tax vehicle to fund a part of government renowned for pork-barrel spending.

In fact, despite Gov. Tim Pawlenty's decision to back a gas tax hike on the state level, the idea of a federal increase has failed to gain much traction with Oberstar's Minnesota colleagues in Congress.

Republican Sen. Norm Coleman suggested that addressing the nation's infrastructure is not a question of money, but of making it a priority. "I'm not yet prepared to accept a gas tax increase as the solution," he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, suggested other remedies first. "We should look at closing lucrative loopholes for the big oil companies and rolling back the Bush tax cuts for people making over $336,000 per year before adding another burden on the middle class," she said.

Some analysts say it is far from clear that Oberstar, counting on the emotion of the Interstate 35W bridge tragedy, will get the new highway money he has so long sought.

"The senior leaders of the Transportation Committee have been dreaming about raising the gas tax for years," said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit government watchdog group in Washington.

Ashdown, who coined the phrase "Bridge to Nowhere" two years ago to deride the now-infamous $223 million bridge proposal for Alaska's barren Gravina Island, remains a skeptic. "I get really nervous when lawmakers say spend, spend, spend, and we'll all be OK," he said.

Some interested parties, such as T. Peter Ruane of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, have lauded Oberstar's plan as a break from "business as usual."

The American Society of Civil Engineers has also endorsed Oberstar's plan.

But others, like oil industry spokesman Frank Maisano, take note of the popular opposition -- including a recent Survey USA and KSTP-TV poll showing 57 percent of Minnesotans opposed.

"As you continue to put additional burdens on consumers, they tend not to be interested in the cost of those burdens," Maisano said.

Not 'manna from heaven'

Given the tenor of the criticism so far, it's clear Oberstar will have to overcome his committee's legacy of pet projects -- from the "Bridges to Nowhere" to the growing network of bike trails in Oberstar's northern Minnesota district, part of $250 million in earmarks he obtained in the 2005 transportation bill.

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