"Make no small plans," Winston Churchill is credited with saying. U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar seems to agree. As chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the Minnesota Democrat is in the driver's seat to rewrite the surface transportation bill, which is due for its six-year renewal by Oct. 1, when the current five-year version expires.

In a recent interview, Oberstar listed his goals for the bill: "To restructure the Department of Transportation and the modal agencies within it; speed up delivery of highway and transit projects; change the operating culture of the department; restructure the delivery of programs to states; simplify and compress the categories of funding, to shift our surface transportation from a highly prescriptive program to a performance and outcomes-based program; give a greater responsibility to states, metropolitan planning organizations and transit agencies; and to elevate the issues of livability and accomplish something really significant, almost in a breakthrough fashion, in safety."

"Can't say it in a word," he concluded.

Whew. While visionary, Oberstar's ambitious agenda might have worn out Sir Winston.

It seems to have had that impact on the Obama administration, which has proposed an 18-month extension of the current program -- a delay Oberstar fears might actually translate to three or four years, putting off important decisions until the next presidential election cycle.

That kind of delay, Oberstar argues, is "madness. Just Madness. It's shortsightedness of the worst kind. This administration came in promising change. And we're offering the most sweeping change since the department was created. Since the interstate was established in 1956. They are responding, 'We need more time.' Well, we can't afford time. The public can't afford time."

The time the administration is trying to buy isn't due a fundamental philosophical difference on transit policy; but rather the roadblock is money -- or, more specifically, how to pay for a bill Oberstar pegged at $450 billion for highways and an additional $50 billion for high-speed rail. That compares with the current five-year expenditure of more than $286 billion. As it is, the existing federal Highway Trust Fund may go broke by mid-August with gas tax revenue falling as Americans drive less, and often in more fuel-efficient cars.

Several revenue-generating proposals have been suggested by two transportation commissions, including raising the 18.3-cent-per-gallon gas tax, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former congressional colleague of Oberstar's when he was a Republican representative from Illinois, is on record as saying the administration opposes a gas tax increase "during this challenging recessionary period, which has hit consumers and businesses hard across our country." One of the other proposals -- imposing a vehicle miles tax -- may make policy and technological sense, but the need to install GPS devices to count those miles raises privacy concerns that might position Uncle Sam as Big Brother.

Oberstar says the role of his committee is "to propose," while the Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction on taxes. Technically, he's correct. But neither Oberstar nor any other committee chairman can afford to ignore the spiraling federal debt, which makes it essential that policies come with a way to pay. If a tax increase is needed, convince the president, as well as the public, that the investment will pay off.

Oberstar certainly believes it will. "There is an economic cost to congestion and a concomitant economic cost for delay in moving this legislation forward."

And, indeed, it would be counterproductive for the Obama administration to give legislative priority to the climate change bill working its way through Congress at the expense of a transit bill that has as one of its core goals easing the congestion that contributes to greenhouse gases.

Oberstar's bill has many merits. But the Obama administration is right to be concerned about the price tag. Bringing a complete bill forward -- with specific proposals on how to pay for it -- is the best way to try to turn a roadblock into a speed bump.