By Albert Eisele and Kevin Bogardus - 01/15/09 07:23 PM EST
Transportation usually takes a backseat to taxes, healthcare and other issues on Capitol Hill. But this year, transportation — and Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) — are right in the middle of the action.
Oberstar is the House Democrats’ point man for the $85 billion program to upgrade America’s aging infrastructure that is a key part of President-elect Obama’s economic stimulus plan.
In an interview with The Hill this week, Oberstar expressed confidence that the proposed infrastructure program will begin creating millions of jobs and generating billions of dollars in economic activity within 90 days of enactment.
The 74-year-old legislator has shot down concerns that the economic stimulus bill will lead to waste, inefficiency and/or corruption.
“My approach is to learn the lessons of the past, and the most important lesson I’ve learned is to make sure you’ve got accountability and transparency,” Oberstar said.
Oberstar, whose 74-member committee is the largest in Congress, pointed out that he learned about the problems of implementing a huge public-works program designed to help a new Democratic president stimulate the economy long before he was elected to Congress in 1974.
Oberstar recalled that when he went to work for his hometown congressman, Democrat John Blatnik, in January 1963, President Kennedy had just taken office, but was reluctant to ask Congress for an emergency program aimed at areas of high unemployment.
However, he promised Blatnik, at the time a senior member of what was then called the Public Works Committee, and Chairman Jennings Randolph (D-W.Va.) that he would sign such legislation if they were able to get it passed.
They were and he did, but most of the projects were too hastily designed or poorly planned “and it took two years to get them started up and going,” Oberstar said, adding that similar problems plagued accelerated public-works programs during the Nixon-Ford and Carter administrations.
“It was giving credence to theoretical economists who said public-works projects take too long to get started,” Oberstar said.
But he insisted that the necessary design and engineering work and environmental impact studies have been or will be done before any of the money for the transportation infrastructure projects is distributed under a formula already enacted into law.
“All that’s missing is the money and the authorization to advertise and award bids and begin putting people to work,” said Oberstar, who said this will be the largest transportation investment package since the creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.
He produced charts with detailed timeframes for states to show the Department of Transportation how they would use the emergency funding. In addition, he said, any funds not obligated by the states within 90 days of their reception would be redistributed to other states under a “use it or lose it” provision.
Oberstar, who is a proud supporter of earmarks, said the infrastructure repair program has to be earmark-proof, with no specially designated projects.
Oberstar, who was staff director of the Public Works Committee when Blatnik chaired it from 1971-74, and succeeded him the following year, said, “We will insist on these procedures, and make sure they have transparency and require accountability.”
Oberstar, who was reelected to an 18th term in November and has served longer than any member of Congress in Minnesota history, also praised Obama’s choice of Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) as the next secretary of Transportation.
He said LaHood, who was a member of his committee, “will be a great consensus-builder” as a Republican in a Democratic administration. Oberstar had been mentioned as a candidate to the lead the Transportation Department.
Asked about the still-unresolved Senate election in Minnesota between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken, Oberstar said he is confident that the recount procedure that is being contested in the courts was conducted fairly and that the courts will eventually declare Franken the winner.
Oberstar, who supported Obama in the Democratic presidential primary, said Obama’s election was a “transformational moment” for the nation.
But he warned that Obama “has to be careful” that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “doesn’t filibuster” the economic stimulus plan when the upper chamber takes it up.