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image U.S. Sen. Jim Oberstar took a tour of the U.S. Highway 71 South road construction project with officials from Knife River Materials Friday afternoon. Knife River Northern Minnesota President Doug Muyres, left, listens to Oberstar, along with Loader Operator Ron Smedberg, Knife River North Central Region Vice-President and Region Controller Tom Stockert, and Knife River Project Supervisor Willard Parks. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Oberstar touts stimulus benefits for Hubbard, Beltrami counties

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U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar keeps photos he's taken on his BlackBerry of last year's Irvine Avenue street construction in Bemidji.

The 8th District Democrat showed a reporter on Friday those pictures, and the image of 75-year-old sewer pipe still fascinates him. And the picture of the new piping to replace it, along with a new Irvine Avenue street.

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"I had them blown up on a big screen for a committee hearing, and man, those pipes look huge," he recounted during an interview Friday.

He shows the work to point out the benefits from the $873 billion economic stimulus package approved last year in helping to turn around the economy. The Irvine Avenue project, which he visited last year, is one funded by the stimulus package.

Oberstar was in Bemidji on Friday to look at the U.S. Highway 71 project, a major reconstruction project from Leuken's South to the Nary corner to bring four-lanes and a turn lane in the city and a four-lane highway south of Bemidji.

The project also includes a new U.S. Highway 2 bypass bridge, for a project total of $24 million. While not a stimulus project, work was able to begin as federal funds caused the state Department of Transportation to accelerate projects.

"You cannot track what people did with their tax cut," Oberstar said of the part of the stimulus bill that gave every worker about a $400 tax cut. "Many people don't know they got one."

Monies for energy projects are taking longer than anticipated to get off the ground, he added.

"But we can go back and point to all of these projects across the country and the result, 16 months later, 35,400 lane miles of highway improvement, which is equal to three-fourths of the interstate that was done in 16 months," said Oberstar, who is chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"It took us 50 years to do the interstate," he added.

Stimulus funding also constructed 12,065 bridges nationwide, he said. It has given Minnesota a $950 million construction program for the last year and a half.

"It means 1.3 million construction jobs," Oberstar said. "All of that is documented with billions of hours of work in each state. On top of that, $609 million in taxes paid by those workers directly on job sites. And $535 million in unemployment compensation checks avoided because they're getting a paycheck and not being paid for not working."

Also, stimulus funds bought 12,500 transit buses and rail cars, he said. "New Flyer in St. Cloud put at least 300 people back to work building buses." And that was repeated in Chicago, Atlanta, Indianapolis, and elsewhere.

"Wastewater treatment projects had funding directed to go on a priority basis to areas of high unemployment," he said. "We now have over 1,000 projects that were septic systems or mound systems or non-existent or aging like those pipes in Bemidji that serve 64 million people.

"The only problem with that is we bury our success," he quipped.

"The stimulus has been enormously successful," Oberstar said. "In Minnesota it has accounted for 11,000 construction jobs."

The stimulus package sent $48 million to Beltrami County through a number of programs, such as $7.9 million through the Small Business Administration, $13 million through the Department of Education, $6.7 million through the Department of Agriculture, $5.5 million through Housing and Urban Development and $1 million through Health and Human Services.

The total for Hubbard County is $6.2 million, with the highest going to agriculture at $2.1 million and education at $1.97 million.

A Park Rapids water supply project got $400,000 in stimulus funding and Hubbard County got $416,684 in federal highway funding through the stimulus bill. The funding was for replacing a bridge on County Road 9 over the Schoolcraft River.

Beltrami County also got $6.2 million for economic development job training and preparation, $8.98 million for teacher retention and Title I funding plus technology enhancements, and $1.9 million for weatherization grants.

Oberstar, who is seeking re-election this fall to a 19th term, said his biggest disappointment of the current term is failure to pass a major five-year transportation package.

He battled the Obama administration over the issue, saying the transportation package would continue to provide construction jobs in a down economy. The Obama administration, however, sought to delay action until the next term, focusing instead on health care reform.

"That is my biggest disappointment of this session," he said.

"My expectation is, after the election, jitters will calm down and everybody will know what the landscape is, maybe we can do it in December," Oberstar said.

The $450 billion package includes a 10 to 12 cent a gallon gas tax hike, phased over several years. Future increases would be indexed to the Construction Cost Index, not the Consumer Price Index.

"We looked at every possible financing scheme and in the end it came back to gas tax," Oberstar said. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which doesn't support taxes generally, said it would support a gas tax hike.

"Just go to any gas station and stand around for half an hour and they'll change the price on you," Oberstar said. "That money's going to Saudi Arabia and other places that aren't particularly our friends."

The gas tax "goes into a dedicated fund, it can't be used for anything else, has an anti-deficiency provision in it, it can never run a deficit," he said.

He notes that three Republican presidents have supported gas tax increases in the past.

"The users of the system are paying for the improvements as they drive over it," Oberstar quoted the late President Ronald Reagan, adding that a 5-cent hike amounts to the cost of two shock absorbers in a year's time for an average driver.

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