October 7, 2011 - From the October, 2011 issue

Congress: Partisanship Hogties Federal Transportation Funding

Congressman Earl Blumenauer has long argued for investing in American transportation systems, water infrastructure, the built environment, and livable cities. Recent political hysterics in the House of Representatives, however, have made it seemingly impossible to pass bills providing funds towards public investments that traditionally have held bipartisan support. Where does such a short-run view leave the country? TPR is pleased to focus on Washington and to once again feature an exclusive interview with Earl Blumenauer, Representative from Portland, Oregon.


"It is indeed a federal responsibility to be the best possible partner in promoting the livability of our communities." -Congressman Earl Blumenauer

Congressman Blumenauer, several times in the last few years you have addressed Congress’ repeated extensions of the surface transportation legislation. This September, the House extended for the eighth time said legislation rather than passing long-term reauthorization. What can we expect going forward with regard to transportation funding?

It’s vexing, to say the very least. There is no good path forward at this juncture. The Republicans have locked us in a downward spiral of infrastructure investment, adopting rules to house procedures that expose the transportation trust fund to collateral. They have a bill that is being considered for the appropriations process that would be an approximately 34 percent cut for transportation. And as part of their budget machinations earlier in the year they cut several billion dollars of funding for water and sanitation to local communities. This summer we watched the specter of a showdown, ostensibly over a couple million dollars of subsidy for rural aviation, targeted at Harry Reid, Max Baucus, and I think at Senator Rockefeller, who is chair of the Senate Commerce Committee. There was a big question about giving a little extra leverage for Delta Air Lines that singled them out as an effort to resist unionization of their employees.

What it all meant was that the House turned the lever (you could almost say shot the hostage) and adjourned. We ended up having the FAA authorization expire and along with it the ability to collect the ticket tax. So there were several hundred million dollars lost, although only one airline, Alaska Airlines, headquartered in the Northwest, actually refunded the ticket tax. All of the rest of it went into the pockets of the airlines. 70,000 construction workers were idled as the projects shut down, and 4,000 FAA employees were idled.

We haven’t seen things like this before. We now have extensions that last for aviation until the 31st of January and until the 31st of March for transportation. But there’s still no good resolution. If we continue this spending at current levels, as is envisioned, we will be left with approximately $7 billion in the highway trust fund when this short-term extension expires. That is clearly inadequate to finish out the fiscal year. We’ll be precipitating another crisis, needing a general fund bailout. The aviation issue is ironic because repeated approaches to the reauthorization passed the senate with broad, bi-partisan majorities. These reauthorizations would provide more money, and they passed with 88 or 89 senators, Republicans and Democrats, supporting it, only to hit the rocky shoals of the very partisan and ideological house transportation committee. I understand and support the need for long-term reauthorizations because these include significant projects, oftentimes multi-state projects that are truly of national significance. We need the certainty that a long-term reauthorization would provide. But if that certainty is achieved at the price of dramatically ratcheting down already inadequate federal support, we are putting ourselves into a hole that will take decades to climb out of.

California’s chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee in the Senate, Senator Barbara Boxer, has proceeded with a bi-partisan approach that would at least give us a two-year extension, keep funding levels higher, and give us a couple of years in getting past the election as a way of trying to stabilize this effort. I commend the senator. She continues to support the spirit of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act reauthorization, 20 years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan helped fashion this critical legislation. We certainly appreciate her efforts. I personally hope that she is successful, so that we can work with her and hopefully have a fresh start after the election to keep up the investment levels that are necessary.

Congressman, let’s drill down about the House of Representatives partisan shift as opposed to the Senate. In a statement from the chair of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, Chairman Duncan, a Republican from Tennessee, he says, “I am hopeful that this will be our last short-term extension and that a comprehensive highway bill can be passed soon. By passing a long-term reauthorization bill, Americans will be able to see their tax dollars going towards rebuilding and strengthening our nation’s highways, bridges and transit systems. It will create millions of jobs for hardworking Americans right here in the United States, not in China or India, and will leave a lasting legacy of tangible improvements to our transportation infrastructure.” That language, Congressman, could easily have been yours. So what divides the Congress?

I have, in fact, been making that argument for years, as you know. And I have deep respect for chairman Duncan: we worked together for years on the committee on a number of projects. He is a very principled gentleman. The problem is that the Republican leadership in the House and on the committee is not prepared to back up that vision statement with the investment necessary to bring it to pass. The American Society for Civil Engineers does a five-year review of the status of American infrastructure. The most recent report card that they issued showed lots of F’s and D’s and a $2.3 trillion deficit. There have been countless studies and professional evaluations that have concluded that the United States needs to be spending far more than it is now, and probably at least twice as much as what is envisioned by the Republican plans. They have been willing to move forward neither on the recommendations of these bi-partisan presidential commissions nor on the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction group that reported this to President Obama last year. Even the Bush administration recommended for the last reauthorization a funding level that is half again greater than what the Republicans are currently planning, and that was back in the early 2004-2005 period. There is an unwillingness to deal with the need for more revenue.

You can’t sort of wish this away. We could follow the recommendations to increase fuel taxes, to deal with an oil import fee, to index the gas tax for inflation and for oil price, to start moving towards a fee based on use, like the vehicle-miles traveled fee we’ve been experimenting with in Oregon. There are any number of ways this can be addressed and has been addressed in other countries, states, and localities. The refusal to deal with revenue results in an inability to act on that vision statement.

Let’s turn now to the Clean Low-Emissions Affordable New Transportation Efficiency Act, which you in fact introduced, I believe, in 2009. Give us a sense of how that bill rolls out in 2011/2012?

What we’re attempting to do is to give people choices and show that we don’t have to be paralyzed. We have a bi-partisan request for the leadership of the House Budget Committee to at least schedule a hearing so we can focus on such legislation. We have opportunities within the Recovery Act money in the Department of Transportation to give people more choices about how the pieces are fit together: everything from trying to make sure that the tax code doesn’t discriminate against consumers who don’t want to drive, to parity for people who use transit or bikes, to being able to provide incentives for carpooling. It’s the range of things necessary to equip communities to provide choices to their citizens.

We need to build on the legacy of the original ISTEA legislation, providing flexibility, providing choices, and, as I’ve mentioned, providing more revenues. But it is a tough, uphill battle. Areas that would provide choice and build for the future, like the President’s higher-speed rail initiative, for instance, are being targeted for elimination. There has been talk that the enhancements funding for bike and pedestrian activities and some of the more creative land-use transportation connections would be slated for elimination. These are some of the most popular of transportation projects. They are the most requested by people at the state and local level and they create the most job impact. They are very employment-rich. But they are not supported by the people who are in charge of the committee these days.

Your Republican colleagues have said publicly that their belief is that such mobility choices, for example bike paths, are not really a federal responsibility. Your response?

It is indeed a federal responsibility to be the best possible partner in promoting the livability of our communities. We have done some good, and we’ve done some damage by a myopic focus on freeway construction without regard to the context and without giving commuters more choices. The strength of the ISTEA legislation was that it recognized that the flexibility to deal with bike, pedestrian, transit and urban development efforts  maximized federal dollars, enhanced the number of jobs created, and made it easier to achieve the legitimate federal objectives of cleaner air and water, stronger communities, and a stronger economy.

Let me ask you to comment on Congress’ philosophical division. It seems as if the Grover Norquist wing of the Republican Party believes that government needs to be drastically reduced in scope and responsibility; and, appears that their narrative has won the day in the House, at least momentarily. Why do you think that is so?

Well, as a bumper sticker, the notion to oppose all taxes increased under any circumstances has a certain resonance, particularly in Republican primaries. As a vision of national policy, it is hopelessly flawed. The idea that somehow there isn’t a national interest is antithetical to, frankly, the history of the Republican Party, not just the Democrats. 149 years ago, a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, signed into law the Transcontinental Railroad Act. It was sort of the original public-private partnership. Private companies were involved, but there were massive federal subsidies. There was a federal vision to connect the United States with rail networks. If this had been pursued on a state or local level without federal help we would probably still be trying to complete it, and there is no guarantee that the rails would be of the same gauge or that the tracks would even match.

You don’t have to go very far  outside the beltway to be able to confirm that people still care about national systems of good roads, of aviation, rail, and ports. We’re not going to go back to the days, for example, when the federal government paid 92 percent of freeway construction. We don’t have to do it, we can’t afford it, and I’m not certain it’s the best idea. I want more local skin in the game. But to be able to have a national framework and significant national investment support helps refine and define the program. This has run afoul of some tea party rhetoric, but that’s not our history. It’s not where I find the people to be.

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The President has been promoting raising exports as part of a national strategic agenda. You’ve been an advocate for port infrastructure and have noted that by 2020, every major U.S. container port is projected to double its designed capacity. Are there dollars in a federal vision to implement, improve, and reinvest in our ports at present?

That’s even a step behind where we are with our surface transportation and aviation. But there is interest, and people understand the stresses evident right now. The ‘I’ in ISTEA stands for ‘intermodalism’. We need to do a better job of making sure that once trade hits a port that it can be conveniently and efficiently moved in or out. I’ve been following closely your progress in southern California. We need to make sure that there is assistance, as there has been in the Alameda Corridor, for instance. That was something that would have been extraordinarily difficult without federal help. But it didn’t just help your ports in southern California. It made a difference nationally. Nearly half of the merchandise that comes into the United State passes through the Ports of Los Angeles or Long Beach. It’s some staggering figure. But that has consequences up and down the West Coast, into the Midwest, and beyond.

Related to this, the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association is about to host U.S. DOT Secretary LaHood and Chairman Mica regarding where we are on high-speed rail. Can you give us your sense of where we are? Have we stepped back from pushing this agenda for infrastructure, economic development, and jobs?

I commend President Obama for including in his economic recovery package some $14 billion for higher-speed rail infrastructure. As welcome as that $14 billion was, however, it represented about one month’s investment in China in what is truly high-speed rail. And even that $14 billion has been under assault, almost from the time it was approved. We have seen Republican Governors like Walker in Wisconsin and Scott in Florida turn money back. I’ve been working with people in Florida for years, and they had a vision and a great deal of private and public support for that rail connection. People were aghast that their governor would turn the money back. Some of the money was reallocated. We got about $900 million reallocated to the Pacific Northwest, and we were grateful. Yet now there are efforts underway by the Republican who controls the budget process in the House to rescind as much of that as they can.

You in California have made a significant investment in your future that, I think, is going to pay tremendous dividends. I think there is unfair criticism. You’re trying to deal with a rail corridor that is about 368 miles. You can’t do it all at once. But putting down opportunities to get it started and then supplemented by federal money is important. What I fear is that we will cripple efforts that people have been planning for years. We may get high-speed rail. But at the rate we’re going it will be designed and built and operated by the Chinese, who are moving ahead with this technology. They will get the economic value for the construction and they will get the long-term profit. We will pay the Chinese for the privilege to ride trains that they built for us.  

I want to turn to water infrastructure. Many think that in this partisan debate it will take a crisis or disaster to turn the arguments in the direction you’d like them to go. But in Texas, for example, which grew by 4.2 million people between 2000 and 2010, the state is facing its severest drought and a serious budget deficit, and it continues to delay implementing water infrastructure plans. Will a crisis change the nature of this partisan debate in favor of reinvestment or is anything going to change it?

I think this is the area where the combination of climate change and climate instability is going to intersect with overuse of water resources and underinvestment in the infrastructure. What’s going to happen is that this will forced. Texas, as you mentioned, has had the worst drought and some of the highest temperatures in its history. We’re watching the stress on the existing infrastructure, both in terms of flood and drought.

The American public overwhelmingly supports the goals of clean water. On a bipartisan level they are willing to pay for it. Frank Luntz, the storied Republican pollster, did a survey a couple of years ago on public attitudes about water and found that it was just off the charts for Republicans, Democrats, Independents, alike.

Livable Streets: a theme that you have pressed for decades, both in local government in Portland and on the national stage, seems to also be under partisan challenge. Talk a little bit about the livable streets, your efforts, and where it sits in this congress.

We have an administration that is more supportive of livable communities and the sustainability initiatives than ever before. This is something that communities are starting to recognize: the notion of the need to complete our streets, to connect them, to not cul-de-sac ourselves off, to not isolate people. That’s gaining momentum in community after community. It has been, unfortunately, a target on the part of some who feel that this work is kind of an add on, that it’s beside the point, that it’s arts and crafts, and that it’s not the meat and potatoes of infrastructure. That, of course, is entirely wrong. Making a street grid, having the range of choices for bike, pedestrian, and transit, strengthens the community. It makes the overall transportation system work better. After all, every person who is on the side on the road in a bike lane is somebody who is not in front of you in a car or some who’s competing with you for a parking space. This is something that is very fundamental.

The globally famous, 22-year mayor and governor of Curitiba, Brazil said not long ago that the three principles that he thought ought to guide societies and communities are mobility, sustainability, and identity. It seems like that’s probably the mantra of Portland. But why is that argument in less favor today than it was a couple of years ago? Why has it lost its force?

We are having people who are responding with bumper sticker solutions and a mindset from 20 or 30 years ago. These principles are not that hard to understand, but they require a little bit of effort. When people come to Portland, they inevitably are drawn to the walkable streets. They are overwhelmed by how many people are taking transit, riding bikes. They are looking at the investment in community revitalization.

I’m impressed with what’s happening in Los Angeles, by the way, in terms of the revitalization of the downtown, in terms of what you’ve done with transit, in terms of the renewed interest in cycling. This is a growing national movement. Unfortunately it’s currently a movement that has very little policy or financial support from the Federal Government.

Let’s close with just one last question: if stakeholders in infrastructure investment -  i.e. state and local governments, engineering and constructions -  are interested in finding federal funding, where do they look? Where’s the money?

There still are pools that haven’t yet been rescinded from the economic recovery act. There’s another round of TIGER grants. There are also opportunities in other agencies. For example, the Department of Agriculture is probably the only department in the federal government that has the capacity to build an entire community from the ground up. There’s going to be a new farm bill, and I’m looking to find resources out of that farm bill that can help with some of the community development initiatives. There’s still money in HUD. There’s the health arena: things we are talking about here have significant implications for the health and welfare of our citizens. The Department of Defense is the largest consumer of energy in the world; it provides housing, office, training facilities for hundreds of thousands of people. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to work together to coax some of these resources back to supplement the visions of individual communities.

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© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.