House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) helped shape the infrastructure portions of what became last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He also was a key player in the Jobs for Main Street bill that the House passed in December and continues to push for his six-year, $500-billion highway-transit-rail reauthorization measure. In a one-on-one interview with ENR Washington Bureau Chief Tom Ichniowski Feb. 3 in the "T&I" committee's offices in the Rayburn House Office Building, Oberstar discussed the impact of the stimulus measure so far and the need for further legislation.
ENR : Are you pleased with the pace at which the federal and state agencies have put the work out to bid and under contract in the core sectors that your committee is responsible for.
Oberstar: Very pleased with the way the state DOTs responded [in the highway category]....And the reason it all worked so well is that we have a formula by which our funding goes out. Each state has its designated amount....We also had prepared the way with hearings in 2008...and told state DOTs time and again, 'We expect you to have projects designed, engineered, right-of-way acquired, EIS completed, through final design and engineering, ready for bidding.' And most of them took that to heart.
[Regarding] FAA, which had only $1.1 billion [in ARRA airport funds], the airport authorities worked so fast that in one case I had an invitation to go to a groundbreaking--it turned out to be a ribbon-cutting by the time I got there. They had their projects already completed!
[Airport authorities] have ability to award bids and then hold the contract to that bid until they have the money for some period of time.
State DOTs have different legal regimes--they can't do that the same way. So the airport projects went out quickly.
Transit agencies and the MPOs [metropolitan planning organizations] MPOs were similarly very quick, very ready....
EPA had difficulty working out the concerns that state agencies had on the Buy America provision. But when I met with EPA and our committee staff did, we pointed out to them: 'You have waiver authority, a dozen or more waiver authorities in the act' and [EPA] finally went to work on that and got those things worked out....
The Corps of Engineers got off to a much slower start than I expected, but they've caught up.
All in all...just the highway and transit and fixed-guideway portion, we can account for 760,000 jobs. That's direct and what I call 'supply-chain'
jobs--the sand and gravel and aggregate pits and cement suppliers and asphalt suppliers and rebar, pipe and guardrails and all the rest---760.000 jobs.
On the direct jobs, that's 251,000 jobs as of Dec. 1, $1.3-billion payroll, $260 million in federal taxes paid and $213 million in unemployment checks avoided. Those are very significant benefits to our economy.
ENR : What about the General Services Administration federal buildings?
Oberstar: That was sort of the green portion of our program, where they're changing light bulbs, putting in compact fluorescents and completing their final engineering for photovoltaic roof adaptations.
ENR : Some whole-building renovations and new construction as well.
Oberstar: A wide variety of activities in GSA. And I think the benefit [is] not only in the upgrade of the buildings, the energy savings that will result in jobs created, but it forced GSA to accelerate their green-building inventory and assessment and be ready for the next wave of stimulus as well as adapting their ongoing program to a speedier schedule.
ENR : If you look at percent of money committed or under contract across the spectrum of the agencies you're responsible for, [GSA] would seem to be among those that are the slowest...
Oberstar: They have been. They indeed have. And some of that slowness is refining their inventory between the government-owned facilities and rentals. They can do much more work more rapidly with direct government ownership thqn with those in which the government is leasing....
ENR : So over all, you're generally pleased with the pace for [the] agencies?
Oberstar: The only complaint I have is we should have had $250 billion instead of the $62 billion in our committee programs [in ARRA].
If most of the money is committed in your sectors already...if you're a contractor...there are not too many contracts to go chase. So what next?
My projection is by the middle or end of June, we¹ll be down to a handful, 40 or 50 [ARRA] highway projects....Meanwhile the private sector is not rebounding....
We need the Jobs for Main Street continuation of stimulus but we need the certainty, the stability of a long-term transportation bill.
ENR : How do you [think] the jobs bill is going to shape up with the Senate. They look like they're doing smaller pieces [than the House].
Oberstar: ....Just pass something. We go to conference, we'll settle it in conference.