September 1, 2003 - From the September, 2003 issue

A 'RailVolution' Is Coming to L.A.in 2004, Blumenauer Is Its Conductor

With a deficit-ridden state budget that leaves little for transportation projects, federal transportation dollars are more important than ever for California to maintain and improve its transportation infrastructure. But, the climate in Washington seems to be as hostile and partisan as that in Sacramento. Is there any hope? TPR recently caught up with Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Portlnd, OR) to get an insider's take on transportation re-authorization and the upcoming Railvolution Conference, and an outsider's view on California's perfect political storm.


Earl Blumenauer

Earl, your annual RailVolution conference is scheduled for September in Atlanta. Could you give our readers a synopsis of what the conference's focus will be?

We first started as a regional rail conference in Portland twelve years ago. After a couple years, we found we had people from six other states and Canada attending-we've been working on a national level since. We'd like to think that it has developed into the country's preeminent showcase of how government transportation and land use policies can help make livable communities. We have a diverse range of participants from over 200 communities including government, elected officials, planning commission members, and transit agencies. Increasingly, we're seeing people from the private sector, not just developers and architects, but people on the investment side as well. The idea is to help people share the range of policies and practices.

This year's focus is going to be on the re-authorization. On the federal level, the bill will probably not be re-authorized before the September 30 deadline, but a six-month extension appears to be most likely. This extension may work in our favor by getting it into an election year. The special location in Atlanta gives us opportunities to look at a metropolitan area that has expanded more rapidly in the last dozen years than any in the history of human settlement. Atlanta is also in the process of developing a rapid transit system, dealing with poor air quality, and the health issues associated with their growth. So this year we'll have heavy participation this year from people who are looking at the health aspects of livable communities. There has been a spate of research coming out in the last few days, which is exquisitely timed for our purposes, that points out how a livable community with connections and a compact form is actually a healthier place to live.

What cities over this last decade have hosted the Rail-Volution conference and, to orient next year's host - Los Angeles- what should a host venue expect from hosting a Rail-Volution conference?

We have found that in each of the major communities where we've been, each has had an opportunity to showcase their achievements and opportunities. We had a spectacular conference in San Francisco that enabled us to showcase issues throughout the Bay Area. The emphasis is obviously bringing people together from around the country, but also showcasing the community and encouraging local participants to interact with national participants to better appreciate what we've done in our host communities and what can transpire from there.

In the coming year, we'll be working with the local host committee to refine the focus in a way that makes the most sense for the amazing Los Angeles basin. I have a personal interest in being able to have some of the transportation focus dealing with the implementation of the bill. We're very likely to have the bill authorized at that point, but authorization is only part of the battle-next, we need to get it funded and implemented, and then focus on getting community participation in the transportation and land use system.

Elaborate on this objective. Given the many years you spent in local government in Portland, Oregon, how critical to the success of public infrastructure investment is community participation?

A critical part of the infrastructure goes beyond the built environment, and open space and land area. Increasingly, we're finding that the human infrastructure is every bit as critical. In fact, if you don't have the right human infrastructure, it makes it much harder to have those other two key ingredients. In Portland, we've found that the engagement of a broad cross-section of the community and their ability to interact with one another is vital. A rich mix of business community, environmental community, designer, and residents, if put together properly, produces a better product. If you don't have the right ingredients, the best plans are difficult to create and impossible to implement.

In the LA Basin, you have a great bubbling stew in terms of economic interests, ethnic groups, neighborhoods and a variety of different governmental units. But, as we often say, if we want to see where America is going to be in a few years, we look at California today. I hope that's not the case with the recall, but it's certainly been the case with issues from Prop 13, term limits, the high-tech boom, and demographics.

Let's move to the specifics of the re-authorization effort in Congress. Give us a sense of the climate and the politics of debate on not only the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) re-authorization, but also Amtrak, and the aviation bill.

There is an important test that is taking place literally as we speak: this year's House Transportation appropriations bill is on the floor. Part of the answer to where we are in the Congress right now is going to be demonstrated today by a vote on an amendment sponsored by Thomas Petri (R-WI), the chair of the Surface Transportation Subcommittee, and John Olver (D-MA) the ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, which would restore the existing language on enhancements.

The original committee bill inexplicably has a provision that would gut the enhancements funding and just turn it back to the states. If the bill passes without the amendment, it would be a terrible blow-the federal government would turn its back on the certainty of this 10% of the funds being allocated to the enhancement program. This has been the cornerstone of what the Intermodal Surface Transportation Act (ISTEA) is all about. It was about a new era in transportation-it was more flexibility, it was being able to enhance communities. The idea with ISTEA and TEA-21 was providing incentives for planning-looking at the big picture, giving people more choices, and making state departments of transportation deal with the unique transportation community needs of urban, rural, and suburban areas. Some states have done pretty well, others have been awful, even with ISTEA and TEA-21. But the states that have done well have been aided and abetted in that effort by the federal legislation. We'll know within the next two or three hours whether we were successful on the floor of the house when that comes for a vote.

And what do expect the vote to be?

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I am moderately confident that we're going to strike this terrible provision and restore the integrity of the enhancements program. We've been working very hard to develop bipartisan support. Half the speakers who were down there arguing our protecting amendment were Republicans. This is probably the easiest environmental vote that anyone can cast because it has such broad support for the single most popular program in the federal highway panoply of activities. (Editor's Note: Earl was right – the amendment passed, restoring the enhancements funding)

Is there any dicussion of integration re the aviation bill, surface transportation and Amtrak funding?

I had hoped that there would have been more integration and that we would have made progress by this point in breaking down this stovepipe approach. We're making little tiny baby steps. But frankly, in these odd times, I suppose one should be pleased that we're not taking steps backwards. I continue to think as we get into an election year that it'll be easier to work with the administration and Congress because things are so fluid politically here in Washington. People are uneasy, the economy continues to be soft, and the environmental assaults are making even some of my Republican friends nervous. I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll make some progress, but it's been a tough year.

Livable communities has been your issue and passion for much of your congressional tenure. How does the record budget deficit, a republican Congress, and this unsettling political environment post 9/11 advantage or disadvantage that agenda?

It's actually had a two-fold effect. The uncertainty and the cutbacks have made it harder because a number of people look to federal funding and programs to help advance that. One of my highest priorities in Congress is for the federal government to be a better partner, both in terms of what it does with the management of its own activities and what we support. This has been particularly difficult this year. But putting aside for a moment the struggle at the federal level, at the community level there is more energy and interest than ever. This was obvious from the outpouring of emotions that followed the gutting of the enhancements program, which ranged from concern to outrage. We're seeing not just the message, but the programs taking root-in Tampa, in Salt Lake City, in Madison, Wisconsin, and especially in California. But, the federal government has not kept pace.

This interview would not be complete without you giving us a Washington read on California's perfect political storm and the recall election.

It is safe to say that the political travails of the state of California this year, culminating in the gubernatorial recall, is one of the dominant topics of conversation. I wasn't just joking when I said that a lot of us look at our future by watching what goes on in California today. People are worried that this is going to lead to a wholesale perversion of what should be a safety valve, into an extension of the hand-to-hand combat that so typifies politics around the country, putting us in an era of the never ending campaign. If we move to a continuous campaign mode, it could just be devastating for those states that thought they were going down a populist, good government route only to see the process hijacked by intense special interests and partisan, big money politics.

How might the recall, if successful, ripple across the country?

There are already people who are calculating how they can turn the recall into a cottage industry like they have with the initiative. This could have a significant destabilizing effect on the political process. But, there are other unintended consequences. One is that it will continue to trivialize political participation. How do you take it seriously with 135 candidates looking like the bar scene from the Star Wars movie? It will make it harder to engage the serious, thoughtful participants, and it will further turn politics into entertainment at the expense of substance. It also is going to backfire in terms of people who want more responsible government. As your neighbor, California has a profound impact on my state, more than any other, and it makes us uneasy.

Finally, politics seems increasingly to be a brass knuckles fight for power. Recently, in a Sunday New York Times Magazine article entitled "Fight Club," a conservative anti-tax group efforts to take out moderate Senator Specter of Pennsylvania for being "too moderate was described." Is party collaboration and moderation in Congress dead?

We are seeing the emergence of a brand of political participation that is increasingly focused and determined on narrower and narrower agendas. It's playing out now in Republican primaries against people who actually are pretty mainstream, even to conservatives, but who don't quite pass the litmus test. There was another New York Times article a few weeks ago that talked about how mean spirited some of the participants are and questioned whether the Democrats are going to have to become more vicious. The combination of focused groups that provide funding and energize a narrower and narrower base that are increasingly powerful as participation dwindles, coupled with the notion that you have to be ruthless to survive is beyond troubling.

We talk about the country being at a crossroads in terms of our international behavior and fiscal policy. Part of what makes the stakes so high and the challenge so difficult is how sophisticated people are in changing the political process. We're at a point where the constituency base that is concerned with policy is much less developed than that which is concerned with narrow political partisanship. We're in danger of having politics trumping policy unless we can make some of these institutional changes.

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