2008 Oberstar Forum - Federal Transportation Policy to Meet State Needs

Remarks by U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, April 7, 2008

Introduction

I always like to tell the story of the best advice I ever got was when I was going to leave the classroom and get into politics.

I had the opportunity to meet former Vice President Walter Mondale and he said, gee Tim you know when you get into this they are going to say an awful lot of bad thing about you that aren’t true, but the flip side is they are going to say a lot of good things about you that aren’t true. And he said it will even itself out.

It’s a great opportunity to be here today and I don’t have to say how humbling it is. The idea of speaking about transportation policy after Chairman Oberstar has just spoken is a bit daunting.

But I think that from where I come from—being a true citizen legislator—might give input into this group about how important it is for the people sitting in these positions to truly understand when people say you don’t want to get down in the weeds about transportation. But that might be part of the problem in this country—that we had leadership that wanted to put ideology above policy and didn’t want to look at the reality.

I am very blessed to be sitting on the transportation committee and sitting on the subcommittees on highway transit and rail. The long legacy of sitting in that transportation room and seeing former chairman (John) Blatnick, you get an education from someone who knows the institution of Congress better than anybody there.

Chairman Oberstar, I never miss the opportunity to go to the hearings and be able to get the insight on them. We are very lucky here. I don’t think its all luck, its an attitude that emulates from Minnesota about what transportation policy should be, about what is expected of our elected official about delivering on certain services, particularly in this case transportation. I hope to be able to serve in that long legacy.

I know the Chairman was commenting on his hip—he calls it arthritis. But the word in Congress is you can only kick so many butts before it gives out, and that may be the case.

We have a very strong leader, a very strong advocate and a great mentor for me. Someone who has understood this and taken transportation to where it is supposed to be, and vision you would expect from your elected leaders.

Minnesota’s First Congressional District Is a ‘Microcosm for America’

As I said, I think I am a case study in this as my formal training is in geography specifically leaning on cultural geography. Of those five themes of geography, one is movement—the movement of people, goods and ideas as being critical to all human societies and all human developments. So it’s an area I have focused on a broader scale and internationally. After having lived in China I have realized how important transportation issues are, how important movement issues are and how critical they are to the growth of the economy.

I’d just like to use my district as a case study. The first district of Minnesota, while very exceptional in many ways, also makes for a good microcosm for America. It’s an incredible mix of urban and rural. We have one of the fastest growing cities in Minnesota, Rochester, a city of 100,000. It’s one of the only health care destinations in the world, with people coming all over the world whether Saudi Arabia, New York or over in Mankato to get to Rochester to use the Mayo Clinic and their facilities.

We are also leading producers. We’re the top ten in pork production, poultry production, soybeans and corn. Now Minnesota has proudly moved up to 2nd in terms of wind generation, and most of that wind generation and this is happening in the 1st district. We are also leading in the biofuels, ethanol, soy and diesel.

We are also a very unusual in this country in that it is almost equally split in political party identification—50/50 right down the middle. We have average incomes that almost mirror the national average precisely. So there are a lot of things there that set it apart, and show great growth and promise for the future.

There are also a lot of things that makes this one of the most challenging districts which I will discuss it here in just a moment.

Rail travel, which for some people is be fantastic, can also be unfortunate for others. If you’re familiar with the DMNE issue, it became a very hot issue on recently concerning how those things work together and how it affects people’s lives who didn’t ever think about rail travel in terms of the traditional way of moving goods to market. But they started seeing it and how it would disrupt other businesses in this case the mayo clinic. 

I came into this position as a citizen legislator having transportation experience because of my background in geography, but also with driving on roads and then on the transportation committee. I was in a position where we had to start having a vision, a broader vision a broader framework on how we were going to deliver for this country. I tell you, this was driven home to me, the importance of vision.

The Rise of China

I lived in China in the 1980s, and I went through a program that was sponsored by Harvard’s East Asian studies branch. But it was Ezra Vogel the economist, who developed the goal to send out 25 new teachers and put them in Chinese high schools, not colleges. One of the reasons was to try to start having younger Chinese students interact, and Ezra Vogel’s whole premise was the biggest single change during this period of human history is going to be the rise of Asia. He said by 2025 China’s economy would be approaching the United States, and it would surpass certain things as well.

He was almost completely except he wasn’t quite optimistic about China as much as he should have been as it’s turning out.

One of the fundamental principals he talked about was holding China back was their infrastructural development.

I remember the first time I had three of my colleagues that I worked with—they were University professors that I brought from China—and it was their first trip outside of their country and into the United States in 1991. I was living in western Nebraska at the time.

They flew into LA and spent some time in there. They wanted to go to Las Vegas as well. I met up with them and we flew to Denver, and then from Denver we drove four hours to western Nebraska in a Jeep. Then we were going down to meet people at the University of Iowa who they had contacts with, so we drove across Nebraska. And yes, I know you’re probably thinking why would you do this to these people, and why would you ever do it. I even let one of them drive for a while, I said this probably was not a good idea but we probably won’t see any traffic so you can go. So we drove across there and the sand hills, went on Highway 2, went across hit the Interstate and all that. They went on their, for the rest of their trip they went to Chicago, they went to New York, they went to Miami and they went back. Now that’s seeing more of America than many of us have seen.

Before they left I remember asking them “You saw all kinds of things, you’ve been here for three weeks, you’ve experienced much of what America has to offer. What is the thing that stood out the most?” 

I thought they were going to say something about Las Vegas or whatever it would be, and they said, “Oh no, without a doubt the roads. How easy it is to travel in this country. How connected things are. How easy it is to go from airports to transfer to hotels to move on.”

At that point, when I was in China in the 1980’s, I always told people I traveled for nine months in China and traveled on every major highway, and they’re like “wow”.

That’s because there were only four in China at the time. It wasn’t that hard. Everything would take 10 hours to get some place that should have taken two, and the Chinese started to understand that.

I think the lesson there is that the Chinese are not coming up with that on their own, but instead they are mirroring our system in the United States. They are mirroring what we did to build our economy, they are mirroring the things necessary for the growth that they think will have to accommodate 1.5 to 1.75 billion people with an economy approaching that of about half the rest of the world. They’ve got some serious challenges in front of them, but they’re preventing division.

Now it may be arguable that it’s a lot easier to do that when you have a centralized government like they do in Beijing, China. I would argue that we have the ability on a greater scale because we not only have the ability to do centralized planning, we have the ability for flexibility that can go down to the local level.

Improving U.S. Highway 14 Across Southern Minnesota

So I wanted to talk a little about the first district and some of the things that are happening there. I did a news conference this morning highlighting one of our great deficiencies in southern Minnesota—Highway 14. If any of you are familiar with that, that’s the road where you will always, I guarantee, follow a milk truck at 45 miles per hour all the way from Waseca to Owatonna. If you’re lucky you’ll pass it there before it goes down to two lanes. If you don’t, you have them all the way there to Byron.

It’s one of the most dangerous roads and also consumes the vast majority of our economic growth in southern Minnesota. 70 percent of our major employers that employ over 51,000 people are on Highway 14.

It is also one of the most dangerous, slowest roads out there. At the news conference, we highlighted the need for a federal partnership with the local officials. One of those projects that Mn/DOT has on the board is Highway 14, but it continues to be pushed back.

I think Highway 14 clearly articulates what need to have the federal vision but with the local control and the local input both on a state wide or regional basis. So Highway 14 to me is a great microcosm of how things can work.

It has the support of every mayor, every county commissioner, and every township along that thing from New Ulm to Winona. These are people who have been working together for years on the Highway 14 partnership to try and accelerate the building of that road.

Understanding that the safety would come along with the economic growth. What they’ve done though, is they’ve invested and worked together with the Mayor of New Ulm. The Mayor said, “I know may have to wait a while, but I’m putting my resources my political capitol my voice to make sure we’re building and we accelerate the portion from Waseca to Owatonna. That’s a critical bottle neck in the transportation of goods, whether that be AMPI moving cheese or milk products, whatever it may be.” 

So what we’ve seen is a group of people at the local level that have seen what bonding together, having a broader vision and have continuously asked on the federal side for us to try to deliver on this.

Understanding Multimodal Transportation Needs

I said one of the problems is that when that gets framed out there, the idea of earmarking, first and foremost Congress possesses the constitutional authority to spend money, the President makes suggestions, and the President’s appointees each of these branches that are only authorized to spend that authority by the authority invested in Congress by the people.

And the reason for that was very simple; if I do a poor job, throw me out. If I do a good job of it or help build a coalition, we can do a better job of delivering and people think that’s the way to go.

So as we started to deliver and ask for some of these projects one of the problems has been that the state of Minnesota does not possess the potential to meet our matching funds from the government. So I requested earmarks and the federal government wasn’t able to deliver on that.

The Chairman had to unfortunately tell people we had to return it back to the Treasury. Now make no mistake about it, that money will eventually get spent somewhere if they can come up with the matching funds.

It may not necessarily be in the priorities of this nation, and I would argue in the first district there’s a huge priority that should fall there only because we are producing a vast amount of this nation’s agricultural products and food products, and those are the types of things that this nation should determine as a food security issue.

Now that becomes much broader.

I don’t know and I don’t believe the Chairman. His vision of this has been very clear to me as I start to learn this issue and talk about it for my district—understanding multimodal transportation needs.

One of the things in our district, down there in the first district that’s critical is the Mississippi River and the locks and ports down at Winona. For seven years we had Congress on ideological principal only and it was my understanding and the way I have learned it, simply did not pass a word of it. They didn’t do a thing to upgrade those locks and dams.

Now you get the bottle neck north of St. Louis and you get products that back all the way up, slow things all the way back up into Winona and the understanding is, if we’re going to improve Highway 14, if going to improve our rail in the first district, if it’s going to go at the port of Winona and empty into the Mississippi to take our products out. Otherwise it makes no sense for us to be investing in those things if they’re not investing in upgrading the locks and dams.

So there’s a place and a position for a federal representative to articulate the needs of the local district, but then it must be taken into a whole to see what’s going to happen across the spectrum, and I think what has been lacking of this is.

Partisanship and Transportation Policy

As the Chairman has said, the partisanship is so great that ideology is driving the decisions in politics, not the facts that are there. And if there’s one thing that I know and I see this, you ask yourself when you get to Congress, and it better be the first question you ask.

You walk in there and you get sworn in and you look around and see the people who are there, whether it’s Jim Oberstar, Charlie Wrangle, John Dingell. You see these giants of people that you’ve heard about, people that are there serving on this, and you realize that Lincoln sat there, and Ford sat there, and Kennedy sat there, and you look and you say, “What in the heck am I doing here?” And then you meet all of your colleagues and you say, “What in the hell are they doing here, in this place?” And it’s true!

What happens is there are all these competing interests and that’s the way it was designed to be, but somewhere as the Chairman’s talking about the ability to voice-vote something that’s in the best interests of this country, at somewhat of a sacrifice on the individual district has totally been lost.

The idea of voice-voting something that would put your ideology at a second-rate—when I hear the Chairman talk about this, he’s exactly right. He said all funding measures are on the table. Ideologically, the idea of a public highway being owned on a private side somewhat makes me a little squeamish, but it would be disingenuous and ineffective leadership if I were not willing to look at that, especially if it delivers what it’s supposed to do. If they are able to deliver at a cost to reduce congestion, to improve safety, improve economic growth in our area, then I’m foolish to say just because I’m ideologically opposed to that, that we’re not willing to look at it. And I would argue the same thing too!

Nobody doubts that tax policy is critical—a critical component of economic policy in a country. The thing that I think the Chairman is speaking about, what many of us think that we need to get back to, is tax policy is not the only thing—tax policy is one component of infrastructure development, education, and so forth down the line.

Some of the things we’re seeing, and these are some of the concerns that I have, are we are on the verge, I believe, of seeing things that are creating new coalitions like the blue-green alliance and the steel workers with Sierra Club. Who would have thought of that a few years ago? But what their understanding is, and I don’t necessarily care what your priorities are in this, if your priorities are moving us off of foreign oil because it’s a magnet for war, that’s a good reason to move to alternative fuels. If your reason for moving to alternative fuels is to reduce global warming and the pressure on the environment, then good for you, I’m with you on that. But if you’re reason is simply to rejuvenate rural Minnesota to create jobs and keep people living there and you think that’s the reason we need to do it, then I’m for you on that too. It’s a win/win situation.

We are prepared, and I can tell you this, the corn growers and the soybean growers don’t ever think they’re the solution to this energy crisis. They know that if we grew every acre of arable land in this country and converted it all to corn, grew nothing else, and used every single bushel of that for fuel, that would get us fourteen percent of our fuel needs.

They know that’s not the solution, but what they do know is, they proved that it could work. They are prepared to move to the next level. The next level you hear about everybody talks about it, President Bush even talks about it in his state of the union speech, cellulosic ethanol. But there are problems with cellulosic ethanol.

One, is the research hasn’t been put into it to see if its feasible. This stuff is heavy and when anything is heavy, it makes it expensive to move. If it’s expensive to move and there is no money to be made in it, good luck getting any money out of Wall Street in it.

Transportation Infrastructure Challenges

So the issue here is the transportation infrastructure has to be such that it can accommodate this new means. There are people at the University of Minnesota that are working on this, they are working on flat bed conversions, where you are able to go out to the field and catch the fast growing poplar trees, the switch grass, the corncobs or whatever it be and process it on the back of that semi and pump it right into the rail. 

That would be an ideal situation but one of the problems is we don’t have much rail and don’t have much competition in rail. We are asking them to try, and the issue is with the DME railroad.

No one doubts the need for increased rail, no one doubts that southern Minnesota would benefit from increased rail as it would take pressure off our highways and give our shippers more opportunities. The problem is the way the rails are set up right now is that the rail company wants to keep that scarcity there because then it allows you to have capital shipping rights.

So I quickly found that when the Chairman had a bill on rail competition, we put in an amendment, just a little amendment, to have the USDA study rail competition and if they are charging us capital shipping rights. That was the only question and we wanted the USDA to study. Well, I found out just exactly how many lawyers can be hired by the railroad when we put that up. It’s a lot! They fought it, and of course I put it out publicly and you know just being as naive as I am I said, “well I think you’d want to prove there’s not captive shipping rates, and it would appear to me if you stopped this study from going forward, you’re admitting there might be.” 

Well they grumbled and grumbled and it passed. So once we get it through we’ll see, but the issue on this, and as I said our opposition is especially in giving 2.3 billion dollars to a railroad that did not prove they have the fiscal responsibility or the means to pay back a loan and it was going run right through the center of Mayo campus caused a lot of friction, but what happened again putting ideology above policy is, the argument there was, well the congressman is opposed to rail travel.

That’s ludicrous. I can’t be opposed to rail travel—I’m opposed to inefficient use of federal dollars in rail travel. I’m opposed to non-transparent use of federal dollars into a private project, but I’m not opposed to a federal dollars going to a private project as long as its been vetted and its been proven that this was the best use of 2.5 billion dollars, the single largest loan that’s ever been given to a private company, and that darn thing was done in the middle of the night, and asking questions about it somehow questioning whether we were committed to rail.

It’s one of the problems that have been happening, it’s one of the problems of the patchwork quilt of decisions that were being made and what the Chairman was talking about.

Envisioning Regional and National Transportation Solutions

I think new members of Congress like myself are talking about is a vision that has a federal framework, a regional framework, the idea that why is it such a pipe dream or why would you be considered fringe if you’re talking about running passenger rail from Chicago to Minneapolis, and we’d like you to stop by and pick us up in Winona and Rochester on the way because it’s a destination that’s there.

Why is that such a thing for us to look at and start envisioning for? I can tell you every time I talk about passenger rail running from Chicago to Minneapolis through that area at the Mayo clinic, I have yet to find a constituent that thinks that is a bad idea. Now it starts to become a little more sticky when you think of how you going to pay for it, is it feasible, what are we going to do.

That is the trade off, are we going to lose highways if we do this? But that’s the role of the federal government and of the commission to come up with a vision.

The last thing that I would like to talk just a little bit about is this idea of inaction—of not doing anything and how we have boxed ourselves into the either or.

It happens on every issue in Washington, and the reason that it does is because it’s very effective. The politicians are hiring marketing people because that is all you’re doing, is selling yourself every two years, well every day basically, but it comes every two years you have to stand forward to it the idea of telling you why you’re best on it.

The idea of marketing is always shaped in this idea that people have to hear this nine to fourteen times. They have to hear a single simple message and they will start to brand you as being a certain way.

Well what the Chairman is talking about and what this room is talking about is this is a very nuanced, very detailed discussion. This is one that is going to take a vision that stands beyond the next election to the next generation. This is one that is going to have to make tough decisions that are going to allocate precious resources in a certain way and it is going to allocate these resources where we might not see an actual instantaneous pay off in it, it may take a while to do that.

To do that is very difficult in this environment because everything gets distilled down to the very short things on this. I would argue though, and I think the Chairman clearly pointed this out, to not make a choice or not to do anything is still making a choice.

To not make that choice, is still adding a tax. To not make that choice is still costing us. I think what we need to realize is the cost of inaction, the direction we want to go.

Or do we want to divide us over this issue of? I would be the first to say this issue of the gas tax that kicked in, I think most of us have seen it, its one of the things we have. Gas was $3.25 in Mankato yesterday, was $3.19 today. Tomorrow I expect it to be $3.27. I don’t know where it is going to go, but on April 1st when the two cents kicked in or whatever it was there.

Not to make light of that, I think most of us agree in here a gas tax can be fairly regressive when the cost of gas goes up it hits those making minimum wage hardest. So it is a concern there, but many of us felt like as we’ve seen gas prices go up nearly 100 percent in the last 18 months, with the vast majority of that being shipped overseas, the vast majority ending up in the OPEC nations, then watching our government do nothing.

I will have to tell you I had a conversation about this last September when General David Petraeus gave his report on Iraq to Congress; the report that wasn’t talked about a lot was Ambassador Crocker.

Ambassador Crocker is doing all the other stuff in Iraq that isn’t military related, and there is some of that going on actually. He is there and he talks about he’s got a vision for Iraq that is a bridge and road trust fund for Iraq. This was in the end of September, and I told him, “gee ambassador, that doesn’t go over too well in Minneapolis right now, when your talking about that, when we can’t do it here.”

When I saw him in Iraq I re-mentioned this to him and he said that what he was trying to get at was he was trying to formulate the thinking, as the Chairman talked about here, to model rebuilding of Iraq on a similar system we had here.

Of course they have the added advantage of having the massive amount of oil revenue that they were going to take that out of. Well at this point they haven’t done it yet, but the point being was this nation is focusing on roads, bridges and trust funds in Iraq, and we are being told that they don’t have that vision or the time for it.

Conclusion

So I think that we’re, as the Chairman said, on a crossroads and in the first district of Minnesota it is absolutely critical we see infrastructure development. We have got to see it in our highways, have to see it in rail, have to see it in our locks and dams, and I know its not the discussion of today but we know in the multi modal they all go together the air travel and how it all works together. We must see that if we want to continue to grow. We must see it if we want to see the quality of life in southern Minnesota get there and we understand in southern Minnesota that its just as critical that upstate New York or Arizona be able to address their needs the same way because all of us will benefit for that.

I think many of us, especially the new members of Congress came with the idea that this is a fundamental responsibility, as the Chairman talks about, that some of the first things ever done in Congress were to build the post roads and to start connecting this nation. There are quotes throughout history from Jefferson and everyone else about the need to connect this nation by roads, by rail, by water as it went through to build the strength of this country.

So as a new member of Congress, as a new member of this committee and as someone who comes to you, wanting to learn the issues from the experts here, wanting to learn from the people who are involved in building roads and to listen. I see myself, as I said with highway 14, when it comes to transportation issues my job is to be part of the team to be a deputy mayor of each of those communities but to articulate on the federal side why the local side is so important where that local piece fits into the national framework.

I think many of the new members of Congress are bringing this attitude that the problem lies in when the ideology drives the policies, instead of the policies driving the legislation that we should put into place, or whether the facts drive it.

Just to give you a bit of an insight on that, I thought I would leave the last couple of minutes if we are still on time here to answer any questions you might have.

As I said it is a bit humbling to follow the Chairman on the nuts and bolts of transportation, but to get to where new members of Congress are coming from to get to where we think that this vision needs to go and to come to a group like this to articulate this as Bob was talking about, my years in the classroom really good fit of skills that go across from the classroom into Congress. And I say that because somebody said “huh, you’re so optimistic, you’ll be here a couple weeks and they will beat that out of you,” and I told them, “you know what, I supervise the high school lunch room for 20 years and I am still optimistic, so we can whip this one too.”

Rep. Walz delivered these remarks April 7, 2008, at the seventh James L. Oberstar Forum, hosted by the Center for Transportation Studies and held at the University of Minnesota.