July 1, 2002 - From the July, 2002 issue

Portland's Blumenauer Champions Smart Growth Solutions For CA

He rides his bike to the Capitol, where he is a leader in determining how the federal government funds transportation projects nationwide. A representative from Oregon, Congressman Earl Blumenauer has been at the fore of smart growth planning, advancing the agenda using the ISTEA legislation. Rep. Blumenauer also has been a progressive voice for California in Congress. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Rep. Blumenauer in which he discusses the upcoming ISTEA reauthorization and the growing urgency of smart growth solutions to urban development.


Rep. Earl Blumenauer

Since we last spoke, the world is in a slightly different place, yet the need for smart growth solutions is probably as great and significant as ever. How have the security concerns post-9/11 altered the political environment in Washington as it pertains to livable communities and the agenda that you've been so effectively pursuing since you got to Congress?

It's very interesting. On one level, everybody talks about how the world has changed. But the fundamental realities that have so troubled people about unplanned growth--sprawl, pollution, people being disconnected from their neighborhoods and from one another, right up to international issues of global climate change and threats to urban environments around the world--these have not gone away. In fact, these issues continue to be serious concerns to communities, not only here in America, but around the world. In a sense, the changed world has increased the importance of livability issues.

We're in the midst of ISTEA reauthorization, a time for regional transportation agencies to apply for their piece of the federal budget. How would this increased emphasis on air transportation networks and security affect the ground transportation agenda and land use agenda that you've championed?

We're approaching the perfect infrastructure storm. Next Congress, we're going to see bills addressing aviation, the reauthorization of Amtrak, and surface transportation. I'm hopeful that we can continue the evolution from ISTEA to TEA-21 to an even better "Green TEA" next year.

The challenge is that we've got a lot of money to be spent. Transportation is one of the areas where cutbacks are unlikely. We also have security issues that are going to invite pretty significant investments. Both of these areas place a premium on the principles that we've been articulating: well-planned and thought-out initiatives that provide American families with more choices.

You go and travel around the country as much or more than most members. Is this the theme you hear nationwide? Is there a regional nature to this interest that you pursue?

These are truly a set of national issues that are informed by local circumstances. Certainly, the Los Angeles basin is not Madison, Wisconsin. But many of the principles that underlie peoples' concerns and motivations are, in fact, the same.

For example, land use planning is taking place all over the country. Nebraska may not be the first state you would associate with land use planning, but there, citizens are voicing concerns over the impact of huge cattle feedlots on their property. In Iowa, people are raising similar concerns over huge industrial hog farms. In New Hampshire, people are deeply concerned about the loss of community character, as small farms succumb to development pressures.

In each of these states-and many more-people want to have control over their communities. Although they live in different parts of the country, they share the same values of clean air, good transportation choices, affordable housing. Regardless of the geographic region or specific issue, these common threads bind us together.

You're the unofficial representative from Southern California to Congress and you're familiar with our needs and infrastructure. How does L.A. fare these days in Washington in the Bush Administration and with this House and Senate, given its transportation agenda? How is it likely to fare?

I do feel like I'm one of your associate members of Congress. Southern California has had problems in Congress since the departure of Julian Dixon, who was very influential and concerned. The administration has not been, by all appearances, overly interested in California, for reasons that invite some speculation. Their environmental policies, for example, haven't been particularly favorable to California. Neither have their politics. It's been a double-whammy by the administration.

Yet we're looking to California for leadership in helping us move some livability issues through Congress. Southern California, in particular, has some cards that can be played. The Alameda Corridor Project, for example, has impressed people from around the country with its ability to move freight efficiently in the critical first few miles after containers have been unloaded from ships.

I continue to marvel at the progress that has been made, especially in the face of collateral battles, such as people trying to break up Los Angeles. However, it appears to me that things are stabilizing and progress is being made with your transit system. These are positive developments and come at a good time for you as far as TEA-21 reauthorization is concerned.

Earl, California has been talking about high-speed rail for some time. Los Angeles International Airport is thinking about an $8 billion reinvestment in itself. You obviously are aware of our transit needs but you note that the Bush Administration hasn't been all that favorable toward California. I want to go back to your independent commentary. How can and will L.A. and California do in meeting its needs as it grows from 34 million to 55 million in the next 20 years? How well is it going to do in Washington?

The country cannot afford for you to fail. The stakes are simply too high. One of the reasons that I, as an Oregonian, spend time working with California colleagues is that Oregon is likely to be overwhelmed if California is not a livable state. We have a huge stake in your success.

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California is also an important part of the national economic engine. It's easy to get support for the Alameda Corridor, when the benefits of that transportation infrastructure fuel the national economy. California is the harbinger of what's going to happen, whether it's term limits or property tax revolts or the latest fads in fashion and entertainment.

There are favorable forces that are at work and you've made substantial investments. For instance, in rail infrastructure and inner-city rail, California is not waiting for the federal government. You've taken the lead on environmental regulations for automobiles and other areas of pollutants. You can shift the market-the private sector cannot ignore your leadership on these issues.

I want to ask you a tougher question. The Green TEA idea seems to be limited to the Democratic Party and has yet to be a bipartisan effort in Washington. What's the limitation here? Why isn't a good idea a bipartisan idea?

There is more bipartisan support than is recognized and I think there is real potential for even more. Remember, some people felt that the ISTEA in 1991 was an aberration, that somehow these progressive planning requirements and flexibility and enhancement aspects sneaked through. But when it came up for reauthorization in 1997, we were able to keep the basic structure intact, even though Senator Moynihan was not Committee Chair and Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. Why? Because we had bipartisan leadership working to make it happen.

Now, after ten years of experience with ISTEA and TEA-21, we've authorized bike paths, enhancement funding, rails-to-trails, scenic highways, and transit projects. There are now enough projects scattered around the country, in districts and states represented by both parties, that we're building a powerful constituency that will ultimately be bipartisan because the broad grassroots support demands it.

Take that one step deeper. What are these essential elements to the next phase that make it such a powerful package and so appealing?

I think the numbers tell a compelling story. In the past 10 years, we have authorized almost 200 transit rail projects and have invested 25 times as much money in bicycle facilities as we spent on bicycles in the entire prior history of the United States. People benefit from these investments on a daily basis and are going to be there to make sure these investments are not going away.

It's not just transit riders and bicyclists who have an interest in these transportation choices. A growing number of interest groups, from landscape architects to green space advocates to road designers, are engaged in these issues. Developers are starting to understand how they'll benefit from reauthorization's investment in a whole range of transportation choices. As people understand how these investments enhance their communities and the economy, I'm optimistic they will not only support these elements, but push to extend them even further.

Lastly, Earl, you know we've been working hard here in California, but it's an issue across the country about building new schools and modernizing old schools to make them mixed-use neighborhood centers. We're about to pass a $25 billion state school bond that has a set aside for encouraging and planning for joint-use. The largest state park bond in the history of the country just passed, Prop. 40, which has joint-use as part of it, as does the state library bond. But getting these silo-like funding and regulatory structures to cooperate with each other, you must have faced in transportation as well. What are some insights on how to actually make this infrastructure work for neighborhoods and communities?

You are identifying both our greatest challenge and the best opportunity we face. What you're doing in California is the most interesting, complex, and interrelated set of projects in the country. The federal government should work with you to provide the right sort of signals and support to integrate these elements. Frankly, I think we can use the reauthorization of Green TEA as an opportunity to bring these elements together.

We also ought to beat this drum on inner-city passenger rail. A third of our nation's airline trips are less than 350 miles. After the security response to September 11, rail can be even more time competitive.

We'll also be dealing with the reauthorization of the aviation legislation. I'm hopeful that we can make people understand that a properly designed airport is one of the building blocks for a livable community, one that needs to be tied in with the reauthorization package for ground transportation and transit connections as well as local land uses.

The challenge for the next Congress is to make sure that we're not just building a series of disconnected policies, but schools, libraries, and transportation facilities that are part of a directed, thoughtful, comprehensive plan that involves citizens in better choices for their future.

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