The following commentary appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
By Rep. James Oberstar
The history of transportation is full of skeptics who have stood in the way of progress. Ranging from those who thought a ship would sail off the edge of the Earth to critics who proclaimed that if man were meant to fly he would have wings, these skeptics have been proven wrong throughout the ages.
I count the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) as one such group of naysayers ("Building bridges: don't raise taxes" Sept. 17). NTU has been a persistent critic of public transportation, light rail, commuter rail and even bike and foot paths. They claim all of these modes of transportation are draining tax dollars needed to fund their preferred mode of transportation: freeways.
NTU is stuck in the past, vainly hoping that adding a few more lanes on a freeway system that was designed in the late 1950s and built in the 1960s will keep pace with the transportation needs of the 21st century. However, our economy has grown far beyond the ability of any single mode of transportation to move all of our nation's people and products.
NTU is also wrong to claim that funding levels for transportation are adequate. In the last federal highway aid bill the U.S. Department of Transportation recommended spending $375 billion over six years to maintain our roads and bridges and keep up with congestion. Instead, the president used the threat of a veto to hold the amount of our investment to $286 billion, nearly $90 billion short of the figure his own administration recommended.
Our nation has 73,784 structurally deficient bridges on the national highway system. Congestion on our freeways is growing faster than we can keep up with. According to a report this past week by Texas AM University's Texas Transportation Institute, the average Minnesotan sits in traffic 43 hours a year, burning 30 extra gallons of gas. In effect, this wasted fuel and time levies a $78 billion-a-year congestion tax nationwide, on drivers and businesses. Freeway congestion costs Minnesota's economy $1.1 billion a year. We cannot afford to continue under-investing in our transportation infrastructure.
Congestion is not just limited to our freeways. Right now it takes a cargo container, arriving on our West Coast, 40 hours to travel 1,800 miles to Chicago. It then takes another 36 hours to travel the next seven miles through Chicago's rail yards. We need to make major investments in our nation's freight and passenger rail systems.
The amount of freight being shipped on our nation's rails and roads has increased dramatically in the past two decades. Our economy now calls for just-in-time delivery of goods, making many of the trucks on our highways rolling warehouses, as they move products to market.
Another way to relieve some of the pressure from our highways and railways is to develop a new form of shipping altogether. Short sea shipping would call for the creation of new cargo vessels that move up and down the nation's four coasts. I authored and the House passed legislation to create subsidized loans for the shipping industry to design and build this new class of energy efficient cargo vessels, for the Great Lakes and the salt-water coasts.
If we make the needed investments in technology and research, our nation's transportation system in the 21st century will be multi-modal. Freight containers will move seamlessly from factory to truck, to train, to ship, finding the most cost-effective route to the marketplace. Commuters will be able to walk or bike to a train station to go to work. Our freeways will be upgraded to allow for greater capacity and more efficient flow of traffic. American innovation and new transportation technologies will make gridlock a thing of the past.
The NTU and other skeptics are not looking at the big picture. They have to look through their bug-spattered windshields and past the bumper of the car they are stuck behind in traffic to see that our nation needs a diverse, inter-modal transportation system to serve the needs of 21st century America.
Rep. Jim Oberstar represents Minnesota's 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives and is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.