March 30, 2017 - From the March, 2017 issue

Transportation Champion Rep. Earl Blumenauer On California's Proposed Infrastructure Investment Package

Yesterday, Governor Brown and California Legislative leaders announced a $52 billion, 10-year road infrastructure funding package to address the state’s deteriorating streets and highways. Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer has long been a transportation and infrastructure champion, advancing active transportation in his Portland district and pushing for an increase in the federal gas tax. The proposed California package would mark the largest potential overhaul of transportation funding in California in more than 25 years, raising the state’s gas tax for the first time since 1994. After the California announcement, Rep. Blumenauer joined TPR for an exclusive interview to provide some critical context about how this announcement is being received in Washington, D.C. Speaking highly of California’s progressive leadership and “fix-it-first” plans, Rep. Blumenauer speaks to the transformative impact autonomous vehicles and road user charges will have within a decade. The Congressman also opines on the unknowns of the Trump administration’s infrastructure funding plans, which were supposedly an area of bipartisan agreement in the initial days after the election.


Earl Blumenauer

"The way California is approaching infrastructure funding—splitting the role of state and local governments—is encouraging. I like the emphasis on a “fix-it-first” approach at both the state and federal level, which avoids the trap of expanding capacity when there is not enough money even to maintain existing capacity." - Rep. Earl Blumenauer

Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown and the legislative leadership announced a “landmark road repair and transportation investment package.” Transportation infrastructure investment has been a centerpiece of your work for decadesboth in the city of Portland and in Congress. Share your reaction to California’s plans. 

Earl Blumenauer: I think California’s announcement to raise the gas tax and fund critically needed transportation infrastructure could be a game changer. Eight Republican states have raised the gas tax over the past two years, but the fact that California is doing this legislatively for the first time in 23 years is extraordinarily significant.

The scale of California’s efforts is important, especially at a time when there is a consensus in Washington, D.C. that we ought to spend $1 trillion rebuilding and renewing America. Senate Democrats and Donald Trump agree on that number, but they are stuck on how to fund the investments. The California maneuver is going to catch some attention in D.C. It sends a signal to the federal government to move now.

I have legislation to raise the federal gas tax for the first time in 24 years, which has been broadly supported by business, labor, environment, transit, and governmental interests.

The way California is approaching infrastructure funding—splitting the role of state and local governments—is encouraging. I like the emphasis on a “fix-it-first” approach at both the state and federal level, which avoids the trap of expanding capacity when there is not enough money even to maintain existing capacity.

I am, however, concerned about the lack of funding for walking and bicycling. There is at most $1 billion allocated for active transportation—less than 2 percent.  In California and around the country, pedestrian and cyclist deaths account for more than 15 percent of overall traffic fatalities. Pedestrian deaths soared 24 percent between 2010 and 2015, outpacing the 6 percent increase in overall traffic fatalities. These trends particularly impact some of our most vulnerable populations: our youth and our elderly.

For the California proposal, the devil is going to be in the details regarding how allocations will be made to jurisdictions. It will be important to make sure that projects actually reduce congestion and bottlenecks, as opposed to unnecessary expansion of capacity.

Overall, the outline is promising and the number is bold. It is in line with the very significant transportation measure, Measure M, that Los Angeles County overwhelmingly supported in November. It follows the trend of other leaders on the West coast, such as the Seattle region, where $54 billion for transportation secured voter approval through the Sound Transit 3 measure at the same time.

I am watching California’s action with great interest, because this is very important to the national conversation.

Please address the federal government’s historic role in nationwide transportation improvements and investments. In the absence of federal investment, how do states like California fund the void? 

The federal government’s role in supporting major infrastructure investments is critical, because often these projects are needed in times of economic stress and downturn.

Historically, the federal government has combined resources and commitments: state, local, and federal. These are major, multi-year, multi-modal, and multi-state projects, such as interstate highways, aviation, and major waterways. They are made possible through partnerships with the federal government, which provide resources and a framework for the projects.

This partnership is under attack. The Trump administration proposes to eliminate all transit funding for the New Starts and Small Starts programs, as well as for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants. TIGER grants are wildly popular and leverage significant amounts of money from a modest federal investment.

It remains to be seen how this administration and the Republican congress will be able to move forward, but it is clear that dealing with the magnitude of our infrastructure needs a robust federal partner.

Other jurisdictions have pushed head, not waiting for movement from the federal government. Sometimes, the amount of money that a jurisdiction receives from the federal government is not worth the amount of work or hassle that comes from federal participation in the project.

Congressman, you have led in advancing alternatives to the gas tax to fund needed transportation improvements, not only in Oregon, but also nationally. Speak to how successful your efforts have been, and how experiments with vehicle-miles-traveled fees may impact California’s next steps.

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California has been following its junior-partner to the north, Oregon, where we have been experimenting with a vehicle-miles-traveled fee for the last 15 years. California has been exploring this approach as part of eight projects funded through a grant program that was included in the recent reauthorization specifically for states to experiment with utilizing the VMT model.

In the short term, we have no alternative to fuel taxes. The infrastructure is in place, and it is very inexpensive to administer. There tends to be broad acceptance of the funding mechanism of a fuel tax. However, today, gallons of fuel consumed is no longer a good indicator of the transportation benefit received by road users, or even of overall use of the system. Even though we heavily rely on user fees, the gas and diesel taxes are simply going to have to be replaced.

California’s 10-year funding window approximates when we need to make that transition. We are moving toward a future with more autonomous and zero emission vehicles in this period. There are dozens of companies working on autonomous vehicle technology, and millions of miles being driven by these test autonomous vehicles. This will reshape the transportation landscape, starting within the next decade.

With more fuel-efficient and zero emission vehicles, the bottom will fall out of the transportation funding model. All autonomous vehicles entering service will be electric. This will hasten the death spiral of how we fund transportation.

But the cause of this death spiral is not just declining fuel taxes. We also collect significant revenue from parking fees and fines. Autonomous vehicles will be much more efficient in how they park and when they park, and hopefully, there will fewer of them altogether due to car-sharing programs that continue to grow in market-share today. Done right—which is a big caveat—well managed autonomous vehicles will result in fewer cars on the road.

The road user charge is an opportunity for us to strike a grand bargain that can calibrate the fee that should be charged. Congestion is the biggest cost of our surface transportation. In many cases, rural and smalltown America should not be paying the same as those contributing to the congestion in urban areas. A road user charge that is calibrated for congestion allows us to raise more money, and to do so in a more equitable fashion.

This would also alleviate some of the political concerns over increased revenue. My friend, former Montana Senator Max Baucus, was very skeptical of a road user charge. But he has constituents who drive big-rigs over long distances. If the transportation funding system is based purely on gallons of fuel consumed, then Max’s Montana constituents will pay a larger percentage of the bill than my gas-sipping Prius drivers in Portlandia.

Calibrating a road user charge that works across the board would also give us further proof that we can use congestion pricing to change people’s behavior. San Francisco has piloted a has piloted a price responsive system on the Bay Bridge in which drivers pay more during peak hours and less during non-peak hours. This has reduced peak travel demand by somewhere around 10 percent, and increased transit ridership.

We aim to build a broad coalition of supporters who can see that this approach will allow for a more equitable way to raise transportation revenues, as well as sending pricing signals that will get more out of existing infrastructure. California is helping us lead the way.

Finally, opine on what you believe President Trump’s administration infrastructure investment agenda will be prioritizing.

It is a complete black box.

The initial noises from the campaign made it appear that they were open to deficit spending. Then, they appeared to settle on tax credits and public-private partnerships. That does not work for most of America’s infrastructure, particularly in rural America. Worse, this framework would take resources away from the vision of a $1 trillion infrastructure package, and use it on projects that are already underway, and that would likely occur without federal support.

It is just not clear how they are putting it together. Elaine Chao, the Transportation Secretary, is an experienced professional. However, we are not getting clues about how specifically the administration will fund these efforts, or even how open they are to suggestions.

Certainly, the slashing of the TIGER grants and transit New Starts is a troubling signal for an administration that claims to believe in infrastructure.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.