2010 ELECTION COVERAGE: In the wake of Oberstar defeat highway bill may face a steeper uphill climb

Republicans are against raising the federal gas tax and may look to downsize the transportation program

News Roads & Bridges November 03, 2010
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The transportation industry took a hard hit during the opening hours of Nov. 3 when Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, appeared to had lost his re-election bid to Republican challenger Chip Cravaack. The margin was a slim one favoring Cravaack (48%-47%), and with a little over 4,000 votes separating the two candidates the victory was not official as of press time. Oberstar has been a member of Congress since 1975.

However, the reality of Oberstar’s defeat quickly resonated through the road and bridge industry when the passage of a new six-year highway bill continues to be in limbo.

“We had been seeing a lot of polls that showed things were going against [Oberstar], but, yeah, I was surprised,” Brian Deery, senior director of the Highway and Transportation Division with the Associated General Contractors of America, told ROADS & BRIDGES. “I thought it was going to be close, but I could not imagine him not pulling it out. I guess his time had come.”

With Oberstar leaving in January and the Republicans taking over the House, the focus now shifts to Reps. John Mica (R-Fla.) and Peter DeFazio (R-Ore.). Mica now takes the reigns of the House T&I Committee and appears to be committed to passing a new highway bill, but the dynamics are expected to be in stark contrast to the ones pressed by Oberstar. Mica’s bill is expected to be much smaller and will depend on the financial promise of a National Infrastructure Bank and public-private partnerships. DeFazio is expected to be named the Democratic leader of the T&I Committee. According to Deery, DeFazio, who led the Highway and Transit Subcommittee, favors transit over highway expansion. The House Democrats will most likely meet in January to determine their House T&I leader.

Of course, when the new Congress situates itself the task will still be trying to find a way to finance the next highway bill. Deery believes the chances of increasing the federal gas tax is now less likely, as is the notion of lawmakers making general fund transfers to strengthen the Highway Trust Fund.

“I think we are looking at potentially a reduced program and more supplemental kinds of funding sources,” he said. “The mood and the climate are going to make it very, very difficult to get our transportation bill moving again.”

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