James Oberstar speaks with both authority and passion on the need for the United States to dramatically increase its investment in transportation infrastructure. But the former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee doubts that Congress will agree on a new highway bill anytime soon.
Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who was defeated in his re-election bid last year when Republicans took control of the House, keynoted NASSTRAC's annual logistics conference April 18 in Orlando, Fla. He told the group he believes failure to make substantial improvement in the nation's transportation networks will inevitably reduce American competitiveness.
"Our population is going to grow over 40 percent in the next 30 years, freight volumes will grow 70 percent in 10 years, and that growth is going to put additional demands on our intermodal system," he said. "That means we need a new approach to our freight and transit and our port and aviation structures. But if we don't make the investments and don't look ahead and do what's right and restructure the governmental system to deliver those investments, then goods will move more slowly, congestion will worsen, people will spend more time in traffic, air quality will deteriorate, fatalities will go back up again, and our quality of life will be diminished."
The problem, he said, is not politics—which he defined as "the business of the people"—but the extreme partisanship that pervades Capitol Hill. He contrasted the current environment with what he described as a more cooperative atmosphere among leaders of both parties in earlier decades. Oberstar told of how he and Pennsylvanian Bud Shuster, the one-time GOP chair of the committee, would travel together to argue for greater spending on infrastructure. "We had our differences, but we worked them out," he said.
Oberstar contended that while U.S. infrastructure was once the envy of the world, the nation invests far less proportionally in bridges, highways, roads, and other transportation projects than Europe and China, among others. According to Oberstar, while the United States spends about 1.9 percent of GDP on infrastructure, Europe spends about 5 percent and China about 9 percent.
He said federal studies report that 61,000 miles of highway and 151,000 bridges are deficient. He added that similar problems beset ports and rail systems.
Citing declines in collections of fuel taxes, he called for an increase in the levies to fund investment in highways. "We cannot do more with less," he said. "We can only do less with less."