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Former Rep. James Oberstar, a longtime figure on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, warned of the country's failure to invest adequately in infrastructure, calling the current era a period of "disinvestment and decline."
Oberstar, who chaired the committee from 2007 to 2011, is a respected expert on transportation policy, and his defeat in 2010 came as a shock to many in the transportation community.
"Other countries are investing faster and more vigorously than we are," Oberstar said during the Governing Outlook in the States and Localities conference in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. "We have to reinvest in our surface transportation program."
The former congressman's comments come at at a time when both federal and state lawmakers are wrestling with how to address the need for transportation investment. The gas tax, used by both levels of government as the primary funding mechanism for transportation infrastructure, continues to lose its purchasing power. Meanwhile, agencies like the Congressional Budget Office have warned of the pending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund.
Congress spent two-and-a-half years debating how to pass a long-term transportation bill before finally passing legislation last year. But the final product was not viewed as particularly ambitious; it only provided level funding, and it expires next year.
Those problems have caused some observers to suggest that the federal government should get out of the transportation game and devolve that responsibility to state governments. But Oberstar disagreed with that approach, arguing that doing so would might only exacerbate the differences between states willing to invest in infrastructure and those who aren't.
Oberstar also expressed skepticism at the movement by some policymakers to rapidly embrace public-private partnerships, warning that some jurisdictions lack the expertise to execute them properly and that the deals many not always serve the public interest.
He endorsed the approach embraced by other countries to more thoroughly analyze the deals. "They're very cautious about public-private partnerships and look at their limitations and what's the appropriate return on investment of the private partner and the return for greater public interest," Oberstar said.
Public officials across the country struggling with how to pay for infrastructure admit they face a paradox: Americans seem to value infrastructure, but they don't necessarily want to pay for it.
"The challenge for policymakers is, if you ask people on a poll 'is your tax money spent well,' mostly they'll say no," California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer said. "You can't convince them to pay for more until there's a conviction that the money's getting spend efficiently."
Catherine Ross, director of the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development at the George Institute of Technology, said infrastructure officials must improve their efforts at using marketing to help make the case for investment.