Congress's Point Man on Infrastructure Spending

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James Oberstar

No one in Congress knows better than James Oberstar that pumping billions of dollars into infrastructure spending to help stimulate the economy is easier said than done. When he first came to Capitol Hill more than four decades ago as an administrative assistant for the head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Oberstar witnessed firsthand the pitfalls that President Kennedy encountered in trying to reverse the slumping economy in 1963. At the time, Kennedy "said to the Congress, You pass it, I'll sign it," Oberstar recalled on a recent morning in his Capitol Hill office. The only problem was, the infrastructure system wasn't set up for quick infusions of cash. The City of Grand Rapids, Minn., for example, asked for a modern water-treatment facility. "We said, 'Fine, we'll give you a grant.' It took them two years to get the thing under way," Oberstar says with a chuckle.

Now, as another new Democratic President aims to kick-start the economy, Oberstar finds himself in a unique position to help shape another unprecedented national infrastructure boom. The top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, where he has represented Minnesota for 34 years, Oberstar says not only is the system primed for such an infusion but he believes the roughly $65 billion in infrastructure stimulus requested by President-elect Barack Obama will create at least a million jobs by June. (Read "How to Spend a Trillion Dollars.")

The funds will be split among nine areas for which Oberstar is responsible: highways and bridges, transit, rail, aviation, environmental infrastructure, Army Corps of Engineers, brownfields, federal buildings, and Coast Guard and maritime administration. All the money will go to projects that are shovel-ready — meaning they've completed their environmental-impact studies, the engineering and design plans have been approved and certified, and in the case of roads, the rights of way have been acquired. The projects are all outside the regular transportation process. Most transportation infrastructure is financed through a formula — usually an 80%-20% split between the federal and state governments. "It'd be very tempting for a state transportation department to say, 'Well, we were going to build road XYZ with 80-20 funds, but now that we've got federal funding, we'll just do it with 100% federal funds,'" Oberstar says. "No. The projects that we're proposing to fund with 100% grant money have to be in addition to that so that they're a real stimulus."

And for all those who claim that the messy bureaucracy usually involved in the quadrennial transportation legislation would hardly be an effective spark for a deeply troubled economy, Oberstar insists this time is different. All projects will be required to have broken ground and to report back to Congress on their progress within 60 days of the bill's enactment. They must report again in an additional 90 days and once again 60 days after that. All these reports will be combed over by the Obama Administration and Congress and will be made public online. "I've never seen anything like this," Oberstar marvels. To ensure that the system will be effective, Oberstar has recruited the Government Accountability Office, Congress's watchdog, and the Transportation Department's inspector general to oversee the process and give feedback along the way. "[We] said, 'This is what we'd like. What are your suggestions for improvements? How do you recommend rigorous standards in law and oversight in the process?'" Oberstar says.

Despite what Obama has promised, Oberstar is the first to admit that there is no real way to prevent projects like the Bridge to Nowhere, the controversial $185 million earmark requested by former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens for an island with a population of 50. Though the bridge was never built, the earmark became a symbol for congressional excess and waste. Transportation, as such a local issue, lends itself naturally to earmarks, and Oberstar's committee is a bit infamous on the Hill as a friendly home to such pork-barrel projects. But Oberstar is in constant contact with Obama's shadow Administration and, with the help of John Mica of Florida, the committee's top Republican, is working to keep any earmarks out of the bill. (View the 10 most outrageous earmarks of 2008.)

Still, Oberstar points out, "We're not going to substitute our judgment for local judgment. But I think there's enough sensitivity among state agencies that have real need, real benefit, and will have lasting service to the community." He then grabs a sheaf of papers from his desk. The printouts, which look like massive Excel spreadsheets, are a list of ready-to-go water projects in Minnesota. Stabbing at the sheets, Oberstar points to one item, a smallish request to build a sewage system for a tiny town in Minnesota. "I suppose someone from New York City or Los Angeles would say, 'What the hell are you doing that for? That's a sewer to nowhere! Why should we provide funds to them?' Well, because their wastewater is currently going into a creek and then into the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico!"

All this is, of course, just one small piece of the broader, potentially trillion-dollar stimulus plan, but it's one that Oberstar swears has the best shot of fixing the economy. "We are facing a worldwide economic, financial meltdown," he says. "And these measures taken so far by Treasury to stabilize the bank system itself, free up credit, are either not working or working so slowly that there is no trust in the credit system. And you need something much bigger. You need to put people to work."

As part of the infrastructure push, Obama has asked for at least $2.5 billion to help transform federally owned civilian spaces — some 367 million sq. ft. that generate a $5 million annual electric bill — into green buildings. The subject is close to Oberstar's heart; he's been trying to get a photovoltaic roof installed atop the Energy Department since 1977. "We could cut that electricity bill 40% with photovoltaic facilities," he says. There are also funds for green transit, like buses that run on natural and propane gases, hybrid systems or batteries, and money to build a more efficient system of loading and unloading shipping cargo directly onto train tracks, as is already done on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico and in Mobile, Ala.

It seems there is virtually no area of transportation that Oberstar isn't intimately familiar with. An avid outdoor biker who speaks fluently the language of his beloved Tour de France, Oberstar had spent a frustrating morning before our interview trying to replace the chain engine on his stationary bike — for the second time. The first burned out after 5,000 miles; the second only made it to 3,000. His conclusion is typically pragmatic: "It's time I just get a new bike."

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