Last week was busy for Members of the Surface Transportation Revenue and Study Commission. We had spent twenty-two months of hard work, with hearings around the country, long deliberations in Washington for at least two days or more each month. We held a two-hour press conference, had a presentation with questions and answers before the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and then Thursday hours and hours of testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Chairman James L. Oberstar (D-MN).
Contrary to what you might have heard in your local media, our report was well received by Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Chairman Oberstar is not only extremely gracious but probably is the most knowledgeable Member on transportation issues. He has been on the appropriate committee into his fourth decade of Congressional service. Usually when you testify before Congress the Chairman of the Committee has aides whispering in his ear. He makes some prepared remarks and you are positive that he has little or no idea what is being discussed.
Not with Oberstar. He not only knows the issues but in most cases when it comes to urban transit he has been there. He has seen the systems. He understands what needs to be done. I was astonished that he suggested that our work was one of the important milestones in transportation history in the United States.
Some of the media is hung up on one of the alternatives recommended for funding the enormous need for infrastructure money, a gas tax increase. One of the Members suggested that we are on the verge of becoming a third-world country unless we take drastic action now. I agree. The Chairman is also knowledgeable about high-speed rail, due to his having studied in Belgium as young man. He compared the times it took him to travel in Europe with what can be done today with the Train à Grande Vitesse, or TGV.
The ranking minority Member, Representative John Mica (R-FL), reacted without having read the report and said there was not a snowball's chance in Hell of these proposals passing. He was referring to the gas-tax hike. He joked because upon the day of the hearing it was snowing hard. He acknowledged that there was much more to the report than that alternative idea. Congressmen Thomas Petri (R-WI) and Steven C. LaTourette (R-OH) both welcomed the report with open arms. Congressman Peter A. DeFazio (D-OR) ripped to shreds a view of minority dissenter Commissioner Rick Geddes, of Cornell University. He is big on pricing for highway passage based upon the need for revenue. It was a case of the professor in theory encountering real-world ideas.
Speaking of the Commission's minority, Geddes supported many of our recommendations and joined us at the TRB presentation and on the panel testifying before Congress. The other two dissenters, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and former Commission Chairman Maria Cino, would not testify. They insisted on being first. The Committee said no, they were in the minority and should testify after the majority. Our majority, by the way, was truly bipartisan - five Republicans and four Democrats signing the report. So no Mary Peters. The media made less of this than I expected. I made the point both at our press conference and at the Committee hearing that regardless of who wins the Presidential election we are bound to have a new Secretary of Transportation who takes a broader view than Peters and this Administration.
Because Members had seven votes on the House Floor, we had an extraordinary number wanting to ask us questions. I thought we might be there for three days. Having been liberated, as Chairman Oberstar suggested, by virtue of having no more votes for the week, all but a handful of Members on both sides of the aisle remained. We were pleased to reply to their questions. It was fine with me because it gave me the opportunity to get to know the Chairman better.
What I feared would be an unpleasant experience, as were other times when I testified before Congress, turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. That was due to the Chairman and a couple of the Minority Members. Look for our Commission report to be taken seriously as Congress explores the highway and transit programs which expire in September of 2009. We have yet to hear from the Senate. Hearings in that body are to be on the last day of January. I would be surprised if Senators would be more serious about our report. But one never knows. It would be nice if both the House and the Senate would co-operate with each other instead of playing one-upsmanship. One only can hope!