Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, twice delayed his announcement, which finally came out Thursday afternoon, of his plans for Surface Transit Reauthorization. The bill, which determines federal funding for local mass transit and highway projects for six years, has been highly anticipated by urbanists. For as long as the law has existed it has favored highways, funding a greater proportion of their costs than transportation projects, and devoted the bulk of the dedicated gasoline tax revenue to roads rather than transit.
But Oberstar has promised a “transformative” bill and, notwithstanding a statement by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that Congress should extend the current bill for 18 months and delay Reauthorization, he is committed to trying to pass it before the current bill expires on September 30. The vision Oberstar laid out Thursday, which promises a major increase in funding, a better proportion for mass transit, and creation of an infrastructure bank to augment the gas tax, is drawing cautious praise from smart growth and mass transit advocates. Oberstar proposes to increase total funding to $450 billion over the six year life of the bill. He would only modestly shift the balance of funding, which last time was 80 percent for highways and 18 percent for transit, to 75 percent and 22 percent, respectively. However, other reforms, such as emphasizing a “fix-it first,” approach rather than new road construction, are likely to help sensible regional planning. But, with the Obama administration being potentially hostile to moving the bill at this time, it is unclear what the time line will look like.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.