- By Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT

U.S. Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., and U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad W. Allen believe bringing U.S. transportation infrastructure into shape requires a major shift in federal approach, according to separate remarks at last week’s American Association of Port Authorities spring conference in Washington.

OberstarAlso at the AAPA spring conference, A.J. “Pete” Reixach Jr., executive port director of Port Freeport, Texas, was elected to assume a one-year chairmanship of the hemispheric ports group. He is to take on the position Sept. 23, on the concluding day of the AAPA convention in Halifax, Nova Scotia, succeeding Michael A. Leone, port director of the Massachusetts Port Authority.

Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Allen, who was honored with AAPA’s Port Person of the Year award, were among spring conference speakers who offered encouragement to port industry leaders.

In March 23 remarks at AAPA’s 64th annual “Washington People” luncheon, in the grand ballroom at the Willard InterContinental Hotel, Oberstar said he is confident federal legislation providing appropriate transportation infrastructure funding will be passed before 2010 is over. The prior week had brought a Senate vote again extending the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, this time through Dec. 31.

Oberstar, the key architect of SAFETEA-LU, said of the $450 billion, six-year successor bill he is proposing, “We’ll pass it this year.”

The longtime Minnesota congressman noted that foresight is essential in properly addressing port development and other transportation infrastructure, giving as an example the fact that, had the Panama Canal been built according to original specifications – viewed as too ambitious and expensive a century ago – the canal would not now need to be undergoing expansion.

“In the maritime business, you can’t afford to think small,” Oberstar said. “You need to think bigger.”

Detailing how infrastructure needs far exceed current funding levels, Oberstar said, “We’re not doing things right in this country.”

Oberstar’s plan also calls for U.S. Department of Transportation reorganization, including creation of a Council on Intermodalism and an Office of Project Expediting.

Allen, who spoke earlier in the day, made a number of points expounded upon by Oberstar.

Allen said it is imperative to “cut down on the cycle time” in federal lawmaking and said the condition of U.S. locks and dams and port infrastructure is at “a crisis stage.”

OberstarAllen accepted AAPA’s top annual award from Leone, whom he met in 1967, when both were matriculating at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Other conference speakers included Larry L. “Butch” Brown Sr., executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation and president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, who said of transportation infrastructure, “We have to have new capacity.”

Brown boosted the idea of a “transeconomy,” recognizing the importance of transportation infrastructure to a flourishing economy, adding, “We’ve got to educate the public about transportation and the value of it.”