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Oberstar: Stimulus funds created jobs

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar briefs Minnesota legislators Thursday on federal issues, mostly about transportation policy. The Minnesota Democrat is chairman of the U.S. House Transportation Committee. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Federal stimulus money dedicated to roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure last year resulted in hundreds of construction projects that put 8,500 Minnesotans back to work, according to U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, DFL-8th District.

But he said there's much more to be done.

Oberstar, who leads the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, visited the Minnesota Senate Transportation Committee Thursday to update lawmakers on several transportation issues and argue on behalf of a proposed new transportation federal funding package, which would include $27.1 billion for highways and other surface transportation and another $8.4 billion for public transportation.

Nationally, his committee was charged with handing out 6 percent of the 2009 stimulus funds, but takes credit for more than half of the jobs created by the bill.

He cited the 274 surface transportation Minnesota projects out to bid, 236 under contract and 227 under construction as evidence that the infrastructure portion of the stimulus package has paid dividends to the state.

"I think this is a very significant success story," Oberstar said. "When I last met with this group I expected 3,500 jobs."

While speaking to the committee Oberstar celebrated the announcement that Minnesota would receive $35 million in federal funds to help pay for the St. Paul Union Depot transportation hub and took time to argue on behalf of a proposed high-speed rail line that would run from St. Paul to Chicago.

Oberstar lamented that Minnesota hasn't had gubernatorial leadership on high-speed rail since the late Gov. Rudy Perpich left office and encouraged state leaders to get aggressive about finalizing plans for a proposed high-speed line between St. Paul and Chicago.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said he believes Oberstar's statistics support the notion that the stimulus has been good for the state.

"The Republicans are trying to make it sound like there weren't any jobs created," he said. "There were obviously a lot of jobs created. The stimulus did do a lot of good as far as jobs are concerned."

He said he wishes more of the stimulus had been dedicated to infrastructure projects but added that the federal funding prevented job loss as well.

"We didn't have to lay off as many state employees, teachers and all that, too," he said. "It didn't just create jobs, it kept jobs."

Langseth, who chairs the Senate public works funding committee and thus has a large say in which projects receive bonding money, added that he'd like to see the federal government proceed cautiously when it comes to additional stimulus. As far as high-speed rail, he's not as excited as Oberstar.

"I don't know," he said. "I remain to be convinced yet."

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, said Oberstar's presence as a leader in Washington can only help as Minnesota attempts to move forward on transportation initiatives.

"The information he gives is always very insightful," she said. "It's important to work with our chairman who we're fortunate to have. He obviously is a leader in transportation and Minnesota can only stand to benefit from that."

Tellijohn reports for Forum Communications Co.