Rep. Oberstar shows that bi-partisan support for transportation investment is possible

Bipartisanship is still possible — even in a polarized state like Georgia.

That bipartisanship was in full force on Monday, Aug. 16 when U.S. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minnesota) gave a luncheon speech at the Council for Quality Growth’s 25th anniversary celebration at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North.

Oberstar, who chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, clearly had the clout to bring together politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Among the Georgia politicians in attendance were: U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat; U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Republican; U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, a Republican; U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat; and former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, who is the Republican nominee for governor.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Roy Barnes, was not in town, which was a bit of a missed opportunity to make the all important connection with one of the leading forces in Washington, D.C.

Oberstar picked up on the unusual bi-partisan sentiment in the room — Georgians who are hungry for transportation and infrastructure dollars to keep the region competitive.

U.S. Rep. James Oberstar


“I’ve never seen a Democratic road or a Republican bridge,” Oberstar told the audience, emphasizing that his committee is about building a modern transportation infrastructure in the United States.

Currently, it’s a dismal picture.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had little progress of reaching agreement with this administration, the Senate and even the House,” Oberstar said. “The lack of political will has caused delay.”

Oberstar said the nation needs to invest about $450 billion a year on surface transportation, which is roughly $200 billion more than what we regularly spend.

He said the nation needs $8 billion to bring the nation’s top 50 transit systems to “a state of good repair.” Oberstar then thanked MARTA general manager, Beverly Scott, for telling Congress the importance of federal support for operating dollars.

But the thrust of Oberstar’s message was a visionary one of transforming transportation in the United States — just as what has been underway in Europe and China.

For example, Oberstar said that in 1987, there were 167 miles of interstate quality freeways in China. Today, there are 25,000 miles, and within 10 years, there will be 52,000.

But China also is investing in airports and high speed rail.

“They are completing an 800-mile rail line from Beijing to Shanghai,” Oberstar said. “We have got to do the same kind of investment and more of it.”

In fact, Oberstar called for the kind of vision that President Ike Eisenhower had in the mid-1950s for a 47,000 mile interstate system — to be funded by a 3-cent gas tax. And the House then voted to increase that tax by a penny.

“That one-cent passed on a voice vote in the House,” Oberstar said, adding that such a move would be impossible today. “But they had vision, and they invested in that vision.”

Today, we are where the nation was in the 1950s — needing to recommit to our nation’s infrastructure. But this time, transit and rail need to be at the forefront, and the nation needs to rally behind a current day mission similar to Eisenhower’s in the 1950s.

“We need to have the same vision and investment of the movement of people and products in our economy, and it must include passenger rail service,” Oberstar said.

The question always is how do we pay to implement that vision at a time when leaders on both sides of the aisle shy away from anything that could be viewed as a tax increase.

And yet, if we don’t invest in our infrastructure, we will be stuck in limbo. Although we are still the largest economy in the world, other countries are investing in all modes of rail and other infrastructure. At some point in time, our lack of investment will cause us to backslide in comparison.

As some of my readers already know, my favorite tax is the gas tax. A higher gas tax directly encourages a more efficient use of fuel. It leads to people buying cars that use less gas, it reduces our dependence on foreign oil, and it stimulates the development of more compact communities.

The problem with the gas tax is that it’s applied to the volume purchase of fuel, and as people buy less gas, less tax revenue is collected. For example, the federal gas tax currently is 18.4 cents per gallon. In Georgia, the gas tax is only 7.5 cents, among the lowest in the nation.

What if we could change the gas tax to be applied like a sales tax, so as the cost of gas increases, so would the tax revenue.

At first, the tax could be revenue neutral to what we currently pay. But as gas prices inevitably increase, then the tax revenue would keep pace.

In Georgia, however, we would need to make another major adjustment. We would need to ask voters to change the constitution to allow gas taxes to go to all modes of transportation rather than just roads and bridges.

Both Georgia and the nation are in dire need to increase the amount of money we can invest in transportation — primarily rail, transit and non-fuel modes, such as bicycles and walking.

We have had a dearth of true modern-day visionaries who can see the future and can be persuasive advocates for investing in that future. Ideally, we could generate a bi-partisan campaign to make strategic transportation investments — both in Georgia and in the United States.

As Oberstar said at the end of his talk when he described France’s investment in its high-speed rail system: “First we need to have that vision. We need to have an Eisenhower-like vision of the future.”

Note to readers: Sorry I didn’t write a new Maria’s Metro column last week. I was not feeling well, and I have been working on a couple of projects that have been eating up a lot my time.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

7 replies
  1. Baker says:

    Good column, your coverage of Atlanta’s need for transportation is the best. The comparisons to Charlotte and the goings on of the decision makers are great. I will say though I have some questions about the gas tax. We definitely need to try to use less fuel and as much non-car as possible. However, does the gas tax not disproportionately effect low-income payers? High efficiency cars are generally more expensive, certainly any type of hybrid or electric would be a non-starter for low income folks. Those with a lower income also tend to hold onto their cars longer, so future advances in efficiency would not be seen by this group to the same degree. I think there might also be some relationship between low income level and longer commute, but an econometrician would have to confirm on that one. Is there a way the tax could be structured to account for this or might there be another option with similar outcomes? I appreciate your consideration on these questions.Report

    Reply
    • Maria Saporta says:

      You raise some really good questions. Let me make a couple of assumptions. If we can assume that the gas tax proceeds could be invested in transit, then I think that would offset the impact on the poor. So much of our cost of living now is eaten up by our transportation and housing costs, but those costs can be reduced dramatically by having one less car per household and being able to use transit. The other thing that comes to mind is how many wealthy folks are driving their big Suburbans, Tahoes, Expeditions, Escalades and other gas guzzlers. And I’m not sure that I buy the fact that the more expensive cars are the most fuel efficient. Think all the great new subcompacts — both American and foreign made cars — that sell for under $15,000 new and get 30-plus mpg. But some great questions. Hope I helped at least continue the discussion.Report

      Reply
  2. BPJ says:

    Most proposals I’ve seen for a gas tax or carbon tax include some sort of offset. Some gas tax increase proposals include an offsetting cut in income tax (and increase in earned income tax credit). Columnist Tom Friedman’s idea is a carbon tax, with offsetting reductions in payroll and corporate taxes (to encourage hiring).Report

    Reply
  3. Baker says:

    Thanks for the comments Ms. Saporta. This issue is definitely something that everyone should be able to get behind. I’ve never understood how the gas/ transportation issue has not been able to get together a solid bi-partisan support group. Sometimes I think politicians don’t see any benefit from bi-partisanship. If they don’t paint the other guy as evil, the base doesn’t respond, and some voters might actually think of voting for that other guy.Report

    Reply
  4. shirley says:

    Chairman Oberstar has been a staunch supporter of MARTA and transit for years. I managed to gain his interest in Atlanta’s Clean Water Program a few years ago but not until I briefed him on the transit discussions underway that led to Concept 3 and regional transit plans. The Chairman is knowledgeable and committed to regioanl transit and smart transportation and infrastructure planning.Report

    Reply
  5. Yr1215 says:

    The “social engineering” proposals put forth by some of the commentators are what make people sick of these taxes. If you’re going to have a gas tax, just levy the gas tax. It may hurt those most in need, but generally not since the most destitute use public transit.

    That said, I’m for a higher gas tax. Our infrastructure is in desperate need of expansion. While I’m for the increased investment in mass transit, unfortunately, we also need increased road capacity. Otherwise our region is going to die on the vine as the roads around here come to a permanent halt. Not a pretty sight… and its obviously already unfolding as everyone knows.Report

    Reply

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