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Oberstar's Big Plans For Transportation Policy

Later this year, Congress will start debating the big surface transportation bill that's up for reauthorization. Jim Oberstar, who chairs the relevant House committee, has already promised that the bill will include big changes to U.S. transportation policy, but details have so far been fuzzy. Well, until now. Infrastructurist reports that a two-page handwritten memo outlining Oberstar's thinking has leaked, and… it's interesting.

Among other ideas, Oberstar is calling for "transit equity," which could be a huge shift. At the moment, the federal government picks up about 80 percent of the tab for road and highway projects, 90 percent for new airports, and just 50 percent for mass transit. As we've outlined before, that disparity means that localities tend to favor highways, even when other options (say, a light-rail system) may make more sense or are more popular. All that could well start to change dramatically.

Oberstar also wants the Transportation Department to start focusing on a "national strategic plan." At present, as Robert Puentes explained for TNR last year, the feds just blindly send gas-tax money back to states in roughly equal proportion to the amount collected, without giving much thought to things like what projects around the country might be most beneficial for boosting growth or saving energy, or even how to link up rail, road, and air networks more effectively. Puentes's piece on the problems with our current transportation policy is still worth reading (even if it was focused on the stimulus bill), though it's still not clear from the leaked memo how much Oberstar's proposals would address all of his criticisms.

--Bradford Plumer