On July 6th President Obama signed into law MAP-21, authorizing and appropriating federal transportation funding through September 2014, and ending years of extensions and political finger-pointing. TPR conducted a joint interview with Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR 3rd District, Member House Budget Committee) and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (and Metro Boardmember) to assess the legislation’s implications for transportation investment nationally and regionally. Both elected representatives thoughtfully assess the Bill’s provisions and offer insights into the policy choices made and yet to be made.
"I think the bill itself fails to move the entire country forward. Aside from the Senate’s addition of some scenario planning language in the conference committee process, the bill doesn’t include any national objectives." -Earl Blumenauer
"The transportation infrastructure needs for LA County are far greater than anything our half-cent sales tax or the TIFIA expansion could fund. We’re not going to do everything we need to do in the next ten or 30 years. However, we do have a consensus; the public is behind it." -Zev Yaroslavsky
David Abel: Supervisor Yaroslavsky, let me begin with you on the significance of President Obama signing the Federal Transportation Bill—MAP 21—this July. What are its benefits for Metro and for Los Angeles County?
Zev Yaroslavsky: One of the things that we were most pleased about was the inclusion of America Fast Forward in the bill. For us this was a must-have for the development of our transportation infrastructure in Los Angeles County. Our mayor pushed very hard for this over the last several years, it was given little chance of gaining traction, but his persistence and perseverance paid off.
The provision grants us the ability, in some measure, to borrow federal funds against future revenues generated by the half-cent sales tax that was approved by voters in 2008. Coupled with the expansion of Measure R, which will be on the November ballot, it means we may accelerate the projects contained in Measure R to the next 10-12 years as opposed to the next 30 years, which was the timeline for the completion of all those projects. So we’ll be able to accelerate them by about two thirds.
That’s a huge deal for us, and it’s a job creator for our region. This bill, with America Fast Forward included in it, offers the prospect of having a more integrated public transportation system in Los Angeles County in our lifetime. It creates an infusion of potentially hundreds of thousands of jobs in LA, and it gives us the transportation infrastructure that we desperately need sooner rather than later.
David Abel: Congressman Blumenauer, you too have been a strong and consistent supporter of America Fast Forward, as well as a champion for rail transportation in America. But you have also expressed more nuanced views on Congress’ MAP 21 - “Move Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century.” Could you comment both on the value of the rail funds authorized and on the downside of the compromises to secure passage of this year’s Federal Transportation Bill?
Earl Blumenauer: I agree with Zev. As you know, I have worked with your mayor in hearings before the House Ways and Means Committee and in other meetings on Capitol Hill. I have been a huge proponent of the federal government being a partner to leverage the major investment that Los Angeles voters took upon themselves, particularly at a time of record low interest rates. We desperately need construction and employment. I’m pleased that we were able to provide some assistance to build upon your success in Los Angeles, and I hope that it comes to fruition rapidly.
That said, I think the bill itself fails to move the entire country forward. Aside from the Senate’s addition of some scenario planning language in the conference committee process, the bill doesn’t include any national objectives. The bill also eliminates the Senate’s proposal for a national Office of Freight. The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are key freight hubs for the entire country, and it’s important for the federal government to be a partner. But this bill eliminated the opportunity to create this significant partnership.
There is nothing in the bill dealing with climate change or energy security. I am also concerned that it overlooks things like transit parity—equal support for commuters who drive and commuters who take transit. I think the House-driven areas of compromise (items that they couldn’t even bring to the floor of the House) were somehow leveraged in the conference committee process, and as a result we created a bill that is going to short-circuit environmental protections and cut our bike and pedestrian funding by 60 percent. Both of these are huge missed opportunities.
I’m pleased that the TIFIA expansion will assist you in your vision. It’s something that many of us were willing to support early on. However, over the next 27 months (and mercifully it’s only 27 months) we’re actually moving backwards in a number of key areas.
David Abel: Do have similar views, Zev, on MAP 21? And given Metro’s agenda successes, could you also opine on the value of having a common LA County vision and compare and contrast that with Washington’s difficulty in crafting a bipartisan transportation bill?
Zev Yaroslavsky: In terms of a national transportation bill, the bill is inadequate for the nation and for our state. It falls short of what we need. Given the partisan divide in Washington and the inability to get anything done, this bill was remarkable in its bipartisanship a few months before a national election.
Even though it was inadequate, it was far better than nothing. And we were faced with possibly having nothing due to the political dynamics in Washington. I feel like we’re the proverbial frog in the boiling water, where the temperature rises and at some point we no longer feel the heat. Then somebody turns the burner down a notch and we’re thrilled. That’s kind of what happened here.
Our vision has been very focused in Los Angeles. We have a regional consensus on what needs to be done, but even our own vision is inadequate. The transportation infrastructure needs for Los Angeles County are far greater than anything our half-cent sales tax or the TIFIA expansion could fund. We’re not going to do everything we need to do in the next ten or 30 years. However, we do have a consensus; the public is behind it. I would argue that the public is ahead of most public officials on this—they voted to assess themselves a half-cent sales tax in November of 2008, when the economy was in freefall. It’s an indication of how critical transportation needs are in Los Angeles that people would ignore failing banks and collapsing stock markets and would still vote to assess themselves a half-cent sales tax. That speaks to a very deep-rooted consensus that isn’t going to be derailed any time soon.
Being able to take our consensus to Washington, to sell this idea to policy makers on Capitol Hill, was a huge undertaking. If we didn’t have a consensus in LA County we could not have sold this to anybody. Even with a consensus it was not easy. But this success is due to people like Mayor Villaraigosa and Congressman Blumenauer, who is one of Congress’s chief agents for a rational investment in transportation infrastructure in our nation. With people like him we were able to get some traction.
David Abel: Representative Blumenauer, are the ‘people’ ahead of their elected leaders when it comes to transportation policy?
Earl Blumenauer: I am still stunned at what Los Angeles Metro accomplished during the economic crisis four years ago. That was a horrific time in Washington; in some meetings people were approaching panic. Yet in the midst of that crisis, your community stepped forward and passed Measure R, demonstrating a resounding vote of confidence in your future. It has helped us support your efforts with a little flexibility and federal credit, providing one of the few real bright spots in transportation discussions.
People deeply care about balanced transportation. If it’s going to be a freeway-only solution, it’s not going to pass muster. In Phoenix, 83 percent of the public supported maintaining and enhancing a bicycle and transportation program. This summer, Georgia voters will have the opportunity to create regional resources. I could not agree more with what Zev said about the public being further along on this issue than we think. They’re certainly ahead of Congress. I’m hopeful that we’ll capture a little of your momentum to get Congress and the administration back to being better partners with local governments.
David Abel: Zev, could you to talk about partnering opportunities being explored by LA to build on federal transportation funding and the potential of bondable Measure R revenues? And could you address the potential of LA’s CicLAvia, a bicycle/pedestrian initiative that truly undermines national stereotypes of Los Angeles?
Zev Yaroslavsky: CicLAvia has taken the city and region by storm, as did Carmageddon and as Ramp Jam is doing right now in Westwood. What all of this proves is that Angelenos are willing and even eager to change their driving habits if called upon to do so.
CicLAvia is one example: closing off major boulevards and turning them into pedestrian spaces as has been done in Europe and South America to great success. It gives people an opportunity to ride their bikes, to walk, or to jog on boulevards that are never safely accessible to bikes or pedestrians. It also changes the environment of those boulevards. When you don’t have cars driving down your streets, suddenly the ambient noise level drops precipitously, and you hear things that you would never hear on a normal workday.
The response from the public, the tens of thousands of people who participate in CicLAvia, suggest that we are more willing to accept the burden of closing off streets than most politicians will give the public credit for. It suggests that people are eager to take advantage of alternative forms of transportation and recreation.
On Carmageddon we asked the people of Los Angeles County to change their driving patterns for a whole weekend as we closed the 405 freeway—the second busiest freeway in Los Angeles. People didn’t think it could be done and thought that it was going to cause traffic jams not only in West Los Angeles but throughout the region. It turned out to be a walk in the park—a lot of people stayed home and actual traffic reduction was about 18 percent on the 405 freeway, which is the difference between stop-and-go and free flow.
People loved staying at home or in their neighborhoods. The single biggest response that I got as an elected official in the area was, “Why can’t we do this more often?” Ramp jam: we’ve closed two off and two on ramps on Wilshire boulevard—the busiest street in LA—and we timed it for the summer to lessen the impact. And people have adjusted. If Angelenos are anything, they’re experts in how to commute, and they have adjusted to the point where we have had far fewer traffic problems on Wilshire Boulevard at the 405 than were anticipated.
The point of all this is that people are willing to change their habits in the community-wide interest. They’re doing it consciously, not complaining about it, and it proves that there are a lot more things that we can do if we put our creative minds to improving traffic flow, to improving the quality of life for commuters, to improving the quality of life for bicyclers. I think the public is increasingly demanding this because it works.
David Abel: CycLAvia must be music to your ears, Congressman, as you are the Chair of the Bicycle Caucus of Congress.
Earl Blumenauer: These are extraordinarily powerful examples coming from Los Angeles. When I was responsible for public works in Portland, we closed down some bridges for neighborhood bike rides. We continue to do that by closing streets off to vehicular traffic in certain neighborhoods one Sunday a month during the summer. But we’re Portland and that’s what people expect from our quirky city in the Pacific Northwest. When you can pull that kind of thing off in Los Angeles, it’s stunning, and it reverberates across the nation. If it’s well planned, if people have alternatives and understand what’s going on, there are ways to really unlock the power of the right-of-way. You’ve got hundreds of thousands of acres of right-of-way in Southern California that most people can never enjoy because they’re either stuck in traffic or they’re racing to stay ahead of it. But when people are moving at 15 kilometers-an-hour as part of a community event, when they are enjoying the streetscapes and their neighborhoods in a way that you just cannot experience while trapped in an automobile, it opens up all sorts of exciting opportunities.
David Abel: As you both have referenced, MAP 21 is, as national transportation policy, a mixed bag. For example, projects of national significance are not funded. And you’ve mentioned that goods movement has been defunded.
Earl Blumenauer: I’m concerned that we lowered our sights with this legislation. The beauty of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s original ISTEA legislation in 1991, and what was retained in each subsequent authorization, was the big picture, a priority for planning, and working to achieve a balance.
We have no coordinated national policy here. Instead, we have a series of items, some of which are useful and some are not. This bill takes away the requirement for MPOs and transit agencies to have input when determining projects of national and regional significance. This is going to result in communities and investments falling short of the mark.
Metropolitan areas may be following the lead, but state departments of transportation, subject to legislative intervention and skewed priorities, too often are not. Mercifully, the bill covers only 27 months. However, the decision to prop up the highway trust fund with general fund dollars means that all of our highway funding will be gone at the end of these two years. A few months after that, we’ll run out of transit funding. This is going to put us in a difficult situation as we attempt to meet growing needs with fewer and fewer resources.
David Abel: Zev, your thoughts?
Zev Yaroslavsky: Well, as far as to where we go from here, for Los Angeles County the extension of Measure R is pivotal. The TIFIA expansion (America Fast Forward), while significant, doesn’t cover all of our needs, and we’re not going to get all of the TIFIA money just for Los Angeles County. The extension of Measure R, which the Metro board has voted to put on the ballot in November, is critical.
Measure R was originally drafted and approved as a 30 year half-cent sales tax, and we’re proposing to extend it for another 30 years to 2069, instead of 2039. That enables us to have a longer-term source of revenue against which to borrow and complete the Measure R projects that were approved in 2008. The projects would be completed in the next decade instead of waiting for three decades. We are hopeful that the people will support and vote for it. We have one more hurdle to clear: the legislature and the governor have to approve the legislation to allow us to do this in November. We expect that legislation will pass in August. We expect the governor to sign it, and we’ll be on our way. This is not a tax increase—this is a continuation of an existing tax, and judging from our own public opinion research and our anecdotal experience, the people want these projects built sooner rather than later.
We have a mobility crisis in Los Angeles. This will give people an alternative to being stuck on the freeways or on surface streets for long periods of time going to and from work. So November is a pivotal date for us. Four years after the passage of Measure R, we’re going to ask voters one more time to give us the tools to do what they want done, which is to accelerate the construction of mass transit projects, public transit projects in Los Angeles County that can be built within the next decade instead of waiting till 2039. These projects include the 405 light rail from West LA to Van Nuys; it includes the extension of the eastside light rail to Whittier; it includes the extension of the subway to West LA; it includes the regional connector in downtown, which will help manage the growing public transit traffic that chokes at the 7thStreet station, the extension of the Foothill Gold Line, and many others. All of these projects can be done in the next decade if we can get this extension instead of waiting until some of us are long gone.
David Abel: Earl, in closing, and to tie the themes of this interview together, please comment on the upcoming Rail~Volution conference in Los Angeles this fall—a conference that you pioneered nationally more than a decade ago.
Earl Blumenauer: The purpose of Rail~Volution is to demonstrate how transit investments can help tie the pieces of a community together. We have been moving it around the country; it started in Portland in 1995 as a national conference, but we have been in over a dozen major cities over the years. This year, October 14th-17th, we come back to LA because you are doing so much in so many innovative ways. We’re convinced that there is a lot people can learn from your experiences, and we’re excited about getting another thousand people to come to your community to share their experiences as part of this growing national movement. We’re trying to provide the citizen infrastructure to support innovative local leaders like Zev and to demand better performance from Congress. It’s an opportunity for the people who are designing, building, constructing transit, innovative housing, and infrastructure to work together, to inspire one another, to look over each other’s shoulders, and to have a little fun.