It wasn't exactly the same as scoring a couple of box seats to, say, a Washington Wizards game. But those attending the National Industrial Transportation League's transportation policy forum did get ringside seats at the debate over the new highway funding bill, which was raging on Capitol Hill while they were in town.
In one corner was Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who took the administration's line that the funding proposal was long overdue and urged quick passage of a bill that would provide $256 billion to support highway and transit projects over six years. Mineta said the administration's proposal "strikes a balance between investment and fiscal discipline." The bill, he told attendees, would specifically target the "last mile"—the connections between rails, ports and trucking where bottlenecks typically form.
In the other corner was Rep. James Oberstar, ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who argued that the administration's proposal for $256 billion over six years was not enough. Oberstar contended that failure to bump up spending would put the highway system at risk. He argued that a revitalized economy would allow the government to provide the extra funds without increasing user fees—as long as the government spent all of the transportation funds rather than building up a surplus in the highway trust fund.
"Our investment should be $125 billion a year just to stay even," Oberstar said. He and his allies on the Hill had proposed a six-year bill with $375 billion in spending—a bill he acknowledged would require a 5-cent increase in fuel taxes and would likely be shot down. Mineta, for his part, dismissed that proposal as "a non-starter."