2004 Oberstar Forum Summary

Oberstar Forum envisions the future of transportation in rural America

Regional and national transportation officials, policymakers, and professionals joined U.S. Rep. James L. Oberstar on March 14–15, 2004, to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing transportation in rural America. This was the third meeting of the transportation policy and technology forum named after Oberstar and hosted by the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies. This year’s forum, co-hosted by the Northland Advanced Transportation Systems Research Laboratory, was the first held at the University of Minnesota Duluth campus.

Photo of Rep. James Oberstar making a point

Oberstar headlined the two-day event, which featured USDOT Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Emil Frankel. USDOT deputy administrator Sam Bonasso (Research and Special Programs Administration) and associate administrators Rose McMurray (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) and A. George Ostensen (Federal Highway Administration) also participated in the forum. Many other state and national leaders also attended. In addition, the two-day event included welcoming words from UMD vice chancellor for academic administration Vince Magnuson, UMD vice chancellor for finance and operations Greg Fox, and Duluth mayor Herb Bergson. CTS director Robert Johns served as master of ceremonies.

“To support the evolving rural economy we must continually tune our transportation system to meet rural needs,” Oberstar said, opening the invited-only portion of the forum with a historical context of transportation in rural America. “We have to think about modes of transportation, how they affect rural areas, and what the implications are for the future.”

While probing the changing social and economic landscape of rural America, Oberstar cited recent trends in rural demographics and the implications for the rural transportation system, and rural-oriented initiatives in highway and transit funding legislation in Congress. With regard to pending reauthorization of national transportation funding legislation, Oberstar offered a brief status report. “We are challenged to build on the past, to understand dynamics of the present, and to peer over the horizon to the future,” he noted.

In his keynote remarks during the public portion of the forum, Frankel also addressed reauthorization. “Transportation in rural America is an important, yet complicated issue,” he said, “and we all must work together for a common goal.” He described various components of the reauthorization bill and stated specifically that because rural America bears the brunt of transportation fatalities, the bill will address the unique safety needs of these areas. “One of the main goals of the president’s proposal is to include more flexibility in how states can use funds,” he concluded. “The Bush administration wants local government to use common sense to solve transportation needs, and rural programs will receive their fair share when included in the formula program.”

Photo of Oberstar addressing public forum as Robert Johns looks on

Following Oberstar’s opening remarks, university faculty members shared the latest perspectives in rural transportation research. UMD electrical and computer engineering professor Taek Kwon described the various types of rural communities, the mixed economic activities in these communities, and the role rural roads play in these areas. Richard Stewart, associate professor in the Transportation and Logistics Department at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, outlined the many forces involved in changing rural transportation including the emergence of a global marketplace, a changing rail infrastructure, highway congestion and conditions, rural demographic changes and needs, and rural transportation funding issues. William Gartner, professor of applied economics at UMTC, explained that through his study of rural development and airports he hopes to better understand several key issues including the role of general aviation and small commercial airports in local economies, the local-versus-tourist contribution to economic impact, and the use of general aviation and small commercial airports.

During the USDOT administrator roundtable discussion, RSPA’s Sam Bonasso described his organization’s efforts at interfacing with rural communities and noted that farm communities have a significant role in keeping our nation safe and secure. FMCSA administrator Rose McMurray explained her administration’s goal of finding ways to get unsafe trucks and buses off highway, yet striking the right balance of regulation and movement of goods. Finally, FHWA administrator A. George Ostensen suggested the need to take a comprehensive approach to highway safety that includes the driver, the vehicle, and the roadway in order to successfully reduce the number of highway fatalities.

USDOT administrators and other invitees also took part in the forum’s conversation circle, featuring satellite-style seating around an inner ring of chairs designated for speakers. The unique format has been a successful component of the past two forums. With guidance from consultant Kathy Stein, discussion themes evolved as new members entered the circle and others exited. For example, Elwyn Tinklenberg, president of the Tinklenberg Group, raised the point that transportation has become focused more and more on congestion issues. “That won’t work to address the key needs of rural America.”

“The issue of connectivity is critical,” Assistant Secretary Frankel asserted, leading off a policy discussion panel including Congressman Oberstar and Mn/DOT deputy transportation commissioner Douglas Differt. “We need to ensure that people in isolated areas can get from their homes by whatever means and connect to another mode, and do for personal travel what the private sector—UPS, for example—has done for moving goods.”

“These challenges all come down to people, money, and policy,” Differt added. “But today, the demands in the metro area are so big and expensive they overshadow the needs of our rural areas.”

Photo of Robert Johns, James Oberstar, Paul Foley, Larry Naake, Chris Zellinger, James Foote

After Frankel’s keynote speech, a panel of top transportation executives shared industry insights and responded to questions from the audience. Oberstar and moderator Robert Johns were joined by Paul Foley, CEO of MAIR Holdings, Inc.; Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties; Chris Zeilinger, assistant director of the Community Transportation Association of America; and James M. Foote, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Canadian National Railroad (CN).

In his remarks, Foley stated that low-cost air carriers, like JetBlue Airways, are threatening major carriers, such as Northwest Airlines, and this, in turn, threatens rural airlines. “The future of scheduled air travel in rural America,” he cautioned, “is directly linked to the success of major air carriers.”

From his perspective, Naake feels the two major concerns facing rural transportation involve economic development and safety. “Good roads contribute to economic vitality and are essential to safety,” he said. “Rural areas have more fatalities but receive less funding, and this is a huge problem. We need to invest more money on rural roads.”

Zeilinger called for a national commitment to people even in the most isolated rural areas in a fashion similar to the social policy in which the Rural Electrification Act of 1938 was grounded. “Transportation everywhere is about people, and transportation decisions affect the lives and vitality of people,” he added. “We hope there will be a new reauthorization in which the needs of rural transportation are included.”

Finally, Foote explained how CN plans to focus on customer service to provide the highest quality rail service. “We’re not about downsizing and abandonment and layoffs,” he said. “We’re a growing business providing a good quality product, and this region will reap great benefits because of this.”

At the conclusion of the event, Oberstar briefly summarized the forum's main themes and expressed his hope that the forum be known as “a place where ideas can clash in a thoughtful and constructive way.” Finally, the congressman offered his ideas for helping rural communities thrive.

A detailed report summarizing the third James L. Oberstar Forum for Transportation Policy and Technology is available in PDF format here (485 KB) or from CTS Library Services.