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Oberstar expresses strong criticism of U.S. transportaion vision, seeks change

State Sen. James Metzen of South St. Paul, left, updates U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar on a transportation project Thursday before the congressman talked to legislative committees. Tribune photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- The U.S. needs to redevelop a transportation vision like that of 50 years ago, the House's top transportation authority says.

When the interstate highway system was developed in the 1950s, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar said Thursday, Congress OK'd a 3 percent gasoline tax to fund a safer, faster system.

"They looked over the horizon and saw the future of America and said, 'This is the future of America,'" Oberstar told Minnesota legislative transportation committees.

"That is the type of vision we need today."

Europe has that vision, he added, but the United States is falling behind.

"Either we invest in our future or traffic fatalities will worsen, our air quality will worsen," Oberstar warned. "We need a new strategy and a new investment."

Oberstar, in the House since 1975, said a combination of the currently debated economic stimulus package and a new transportation funding bill due later this year should pump money into highways, transit, aviation and other transportation projects.

The Democrat, who represents northeast and east-central Minnesota, said the bill will be written so large urban areas share money with areas like where he lives in Chisholm.

"We are going to make sure rural areas are not left behind in this age," Oberstar said in a packed Minnesota Senate committee room.

Before the new multi-year transportation funding bill emerges, Congress now is debating a measure to raise the country out of a recession. A major portion of it would be spent building roads and other transportation projects.

Minnesota legislative leaders say they are ready to contribute state funds to federal money designated for construction projects.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, like Oberstar in St. Paul to meet with legislative leaders, said he likes the transportation part of the stimulus package, but complained that it was cut from the original $85 billion to $30 billion in the version that passed.

Oberstar said compromises had to be made.

Peterson, a Detroit Lakes Democrat, blamed environmentalists.

"When they saw that the projects that were ready (to be built) were projects that would have people drive more cars, they weren't willing to do that," Peterson said.