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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Transforming Transportation

Air Date: Week of

Congressman James Oberstar.

Congressman Jim Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, just made public his proposed transportation bill. This $500 billion bill covers everything from funding for highway construction projects to a new high-speed rail system. Congressman Oberstar talks with host Jeff Young about his plans for the future of U.S. transportation.


YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.

Politicians love pavement. So when Congress writes a transportation bill, it usually means more highways. But Minnesota Democrat James Oberstar wants to move transportation in a different direction.

His bill would also put big money toward transit, trains, bike paths and walkways. Oberstar chairs the House committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. And he thinks Americans are ready to—now brace yourself—get out of their cars, and onto alternatives like high speed rail.

OBERSTAR: We need a long-term sustained investment for intercity high-speed passenger rail. I just tell the story that when I was a student in Bruges, Belgium, traveled to Paris to Brussel and then Brussels to Bruges by train. That trip which is the distance of Washington to New York took six hours in 1956. Today that trip is 45 minutes. Every three minutes from 6 am to midnight a train is leaving in each direction with 1100 passengers on board at 186 miles an hour.

So those kinds of initiatives, those kinds of high-speed rail service are effective, they’re operating, they’re working, and they have sustained government support. And now because of the dependability of that service, because of the high degree of reliability, they are financially self-sustaining as well.

YOUNG: Is this something that Americans are going to take to, though? It’s not really that strongly ingrained in our sense of how we get from point A to point B.

OBERSTAR: Yes, I think Americans are indeed warming and changing their habits. They’re moving to transit. A million new transit riders a day have been recorded over the three years for our nation’s transit systems. Ten and a half billion transit trips last year. At one time, ten years ago, New York City accounted for 60 percent of all transit trips in America. Today, New York City accounts for 38 percent, not because they’re riding transit less, they’re riding it more in New York, but other cities have vastly increased their ridership of transit systems. We just need to make a greater investment. We need to have a mode shift to transit systems like rail circulator systems, streetcars, trolleys, commuter rail. If we succeed in achieving a ten percent mode shift to transit, we will save the equivalent of all the oil we import from Saudi Arabia – that’s 550 million barrels a year. And the nation can and will move in that direction if we provide the incentives and the sustainability of programs.

YOUNG: I’m wondering what role did concern about climate change play in your thinking in putting together this transportation bill.

OBERSTAR: Well climate change is a matter of very grave concern to me. I’ve followed this intensely for well over a decade. I think perhaps the greatest contribution we can make is this ten percent mode shift to transit and get people out of their cars and onto their bicycle. If we can convince people that they’re making a greater contribution by burning 86,000 calories a year on the seat of a bicycle that burning 8 barrels of oil a year in their car, then I think we’ve made a great contribution.

YOUNG: It seems to me you’re fighting up a bit of an uphill battle, though, given the long American love affair with the car.

OBERSTAR: Oh I don’t think people will abandon the automobile. But – give you an example: Boise, Idaho in the 1880s through 1950 or so, had a wonderful streetcar system that started in the downtown, traveled out to the outskirts of the city to a beautiful picnic area. Little further on there was a chapel where weddings took place. And it all was done on the streetcar. And then the streetcar was abandoned in favor of the automobile. And now a few years ago the mayor of Boise invited me out to look at the smog suffocating the city because it’s in sort of a bowl and you have mountains on both sides and the emissions are trapped in this. Now they want to rebuild their streetcar. And they’re working on it. Choices like that are being made all across America.

YOUNG: Do you think if these new high speed routes succeed that they will be something that’s affordable, something that the average people can take advantage of. Because honestly, I got to say, the closest thing we have now to high-speed rail, Acela is often out of my price range.

OBERSTAR: It’s true that the costs are significant. But with increased ridership will come reduced cost.

YOUNG: And speaking of costs, how do you intend to pay for the wonderful things you have outlined in your bill, and do I have the price tag correct – somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 billion?

OBERSTAR: Its 450 billion for the Highway Transit and Safety programs. An additional $50 billion in an infrastructure bank to support the long-term investments needed to sustain high-speed inner city passenger rail. And the highway trust fund with the gas takes highway user fee has proven very successful in the past in creating a sustainable revenue stream.

YOUNG: So, we are in all likelihood looking at some increase in the gas tax from roughly 18 cents a gallon where it is now.

Congressman James Oberstar.

OBERSTAR: I think you want have to delay implementation of a highway user fee until we’ve had an least two consecutive quarters of positive economic growth. And in that case then I think people would be accepting because they know where those dollars go. They don’t know where the rest of their tax dollars go specifically, but they do know this one. This has a trust fund, and its revenues cannot be diverted to any other purpose.

YOUNG: Chairman Oberstar, thank you very much for your time.

OBERSTAR: Good to talk with you.

YOUNG: Representative James Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee.

[MUSIC: The Clash “Walking The Slidewalk” from London Calling: The 25th Anniversary Edition (Sony BMG 2004)]



The website for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

Check out Congressman James Oberstar’s website.


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