Credit: Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.)

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), the 18-term chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, was edged out of office Nov. 2, ending his 30-year tenure on the committee and raising renewed concerns about the future of transportation infrastructure.

“Who comes next is the question,” says Christian Klein, vice president of government affairs for Associated Equipment Distributors. He posits that Democrats Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.) and Jerry F. Costello (Ill.) may get the nod.

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Executive Director John Horsley thinks the Democratic caucus will elect Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W. Va.), who chairs the Committee on Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, John Mica (R-Fla.), who has served as the ranking member under the Democratic majority, is expected to be elected to Oberstar's now-former post as chairman once the 112th Congress convenes Jan. 3, 2011.

“The big issue is how to pay for a new bill,” he adds. “They're also going to have to address whether the next bill will be designed to expand capacity or maintain the current system, and whether it will improve urban mobility to the disadvantage of rural economic development.”

The extension of the bill expires Dec. 31, but Horsley is optimistic that a full re-authorization may pass in the 112th Congress, particularly because Mica's home state of Florida remains one of the fastest growing in the nation despite the recession. Any bill under his leadership likely will focus on increasing capacity.

“The bottom line is that the highway program has had a terrible PR problem (think ‘Bridge to Nowhere'),” Klein says. “But Mica can turn that around. The Republicans need to restore confidence in the federal highway program. It's sort of like when we said only Nixon can go to China. Well, only the Republicans can get a highway bill done.”