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Oberstar transportation bill moves ahead

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ST. PAUL - U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar refuses to give in to a popular president's pressure to delay a new federal transportation funding plan.

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"We intend to move this bill forward, this administration not withstanding," a determined Oberstar said Wednesday as congressional committee work began on a $500 billion, six-year transportation funding plan that would mean more money to rebuild highways, expand transit programs and build high-speed passenger rail lines.

President Barack Obama does not want the Oberstar plan to proceed. Obama, like Oberstar a Democrat, calls for maintaining current transportation policy and funding for another 18 months to provide more debate time. Oberstar's plan would almost double current federal transportation funding and is due to pass by September.

Oberstar, 74, has served in the House 34 years and is its transportation chairman. This bill is the northeast Minnesota Democrat's biggest legislative task and traditionally is one of Congress's highest-profile bills.

The highways and transit subcommittee unanimously passed the bill Wednesday.

"This is a national crisis," subcommittee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said.

The subcommittee's top Republican, Rep. John Mica of Florida, said he joined Oberstar in being "stunned" with Obama's opposition. And while Republicans do not want to raise taxes to fund the transportation changes, Mica agreed that "we need to move forward in this process."

Oberstar has not said where he would get money for his bill.

Several on the subcommittee said Monday's fatal commuter rail accident involving an outdated train in Washington, D.C. added importance to the transportation debate. More than 20,000 transit vehicles have passed their useful lives, Mica said.

Oberstar said his funding bill will be debated in subcommittees for three weeks before reaching his full committee.

Minnesota transportation officials say it is too early to know how much Minnesota will get out of the new bill, if it passes, but $423.7 million came from Washington in 2008. About 30 percent of Minnesota's transportation budget comes from the federal government.

Federal Affairs Director Serge Phillips of the Minnesota Department of Transportation said that "there are a lot of questions," especially in how Oberstar's proposal to shrink the number of programs would affect funding.

Phillips said he was pleased that Oberstar and other federal officials listened to concerns of state transportation officials.

While many funding questions remain, "there seems to be an increased commitment to transit," Phillips said of the new proposal.

Oberstar said that delaying his bill as Obama wants would mean state transportation officials could not plan major highway projects, given Obama's proposed 18-month limitation. He estimated that projects could be delayed up to four years and a delay might cost hundreds of thousands of construction jobs.

"There is an old saying, 'no helmsmen is ever tested in calm waters,'" Oberstar said. "Now the administration's announcement of last week stirred the waters, roiled them up. And we are sailing forward.

"With this legislation, we have transformed the department structure, the functions, the programs. We make them accountable, deliverable transparent and performance-based programs."

The bill would allot $337 billion to highway construction, $100 billion to public transit, $50 billion to high-speed rail lines and $13 billion to other programs.

The new bill's $500 billion compares to $286 billion in the current transportation program.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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