May 5, 2004 - From the February, 2003 issue

Rep. Blumenauer Speaks To Goals Of Federal Transportation Re-Authorization

National security may be the number one item on the nation's policy agenda today. However, readying the country for additional attacks of terrorism and other crises requires significant preparation and coordination of city police and fire units-the first response team. The impact of national policy on neighborhood planning and development is not lost on Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland, OR). Blumenauer has long been a leader in Congress on issues of livability and neighborhood development. With issues of "home-town security" and the re-authorization of Congress' funding of transportation projects nationwide, MIR is pleased to present this interview with Rep. Earl Blumenauer.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer

Congressman, with federal transportation funding once again up for re-authorization, and you having played such a significant role in the last effort, can we expect a visionary formula from the Republican Congress that better links land-use and transportation together for the advancement of more livable communities?

We will have a much better picture in the next three to five months. Right now it is very fluid. The administration's proposal represents a modest cut from the current level It's not the sort of all-out assault that we saw in the Reagan years, but it certainly is not yet visionary and does not speak to the needs that people have across the country. But, this is not the final word. The administration is proposing a sea of red ink which has many moderate and conservative Republicans nervous, albeit in some cases for different reasons. It potentially could unite Democrats with many Republicans. The Administration's proposals, not just in transit, but in health care and housing give a number of people pause. The education centerpiece, "Leave No Child Behind" is dramatically underfunded. With a soft economy and dramatic financial needs in communities from coast to coast, we have an opportunity to push back to shape a proposal more in keeping with the priorities both in Southern California and around the country.

Why don't you elaborate on what such a proposal might include? And, address the potential synergy of the other transportation funding bills now before Congress.

We have a unique opportunity with a trifecta of transportation re-authorizations: the Surface Transportation Act, (TEA-3), aviation re-authorization, and Amtrak. There is also the distinct possibility of a water resource re-authorization. This is the chance to link these important transportation and infrastructure opportunities. For instance, Amtrak, surface transportation, and aviation all could have inter-related components-linking freight and passenger movement, while adding additional air capacity. We need to be thinking about the inter-relationshipsand to provide incentives for people to look at the long-term and plan for the big picture. I hope that we'll be able to retain the structural bias that we had in the original ISTEA legislationand retained in TEA-21 that provides incentives for land-use planning. This is essential if we're going to coax the most out of these infrastructure investments.

The administration and Congress have been publicly saying that they wish to devolve more Homeland Security responsibilities and other safety-net services to the states. You've long been an advocate for an increased role for regions. Please address the role that regions ought to play vis a vis these re-authorization bills.

For starters, I wish that we would always refer to it as "Home-Town" Security. We spend over a $100 billion right now on these essential services, two thirds of which are first-responders at the city and the county level, and to a lesser extent the state. The federal government is not meeting the commitments that it has made, while financially strapped state and local governments are incurring major security costs every day.

The federal government, proposes spending $9 billion on "Star Wars," for instance, which may make a difference ten years from now if it works at all, We should instead put this money to work to help people right now with essential public health, public safety, and infrastructure. These programs are optimized if they are done on a regional basis,. not all these jurisdictions with borders that date back decades and sometimes centuries.

This is an opportunity to get it right by funneling resources on a regional basis, encouraging regional planning and coordination. We could perhaps even provide a little incentive for the people that have regional governance systems in place.

With regions not once being mentioned in our federal Constitution or state constitutions, how uphill is the congressional challenge of incorporating the concept into the trasnportation re-authorization bills?

There are many things that aren't mentioned in the Constitution, like a right to privacy, which at least for a while gained currency. People understand that it's the region that dictates how they live, the economies, movement, airsheds, watersheds, traffic-sheds. A critical first step is to make sure that the federal government recognizes and channels its own relationships increasingly through the regions. These are the factors that define how people live today. The federal government should recognize that Homeland Security and transportation are two great ways to start refining and enhancing the MPO provisions in the Surface Transportation Act.


We would be remiss in not asking you about the chances, at a time of budget deficits, of increasing the level of funding for transportation. Is the federal government too constrained by the deficit to entertain such a thought?

The overall budget is not constricted at all. It has a robust growth that's anticipated at four percent, and that's just the opening bid. There's no question that the politicians in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill are likely to increase, rather than decrease, that number which is and that's more than the average increase during the boom times in the 90s during the Clinton administration. What's different here is that we are hemorrhaging red ink, providing massive amounts of tax relief to those who need it the least in the name of economic stimulus. At the same time, we could put more people to work by targeting that investment in infrastructure. These are truly long-term investments that are going to pay dividends starting tomorrow-putting people to work, repairing our bridges, extending our transit systems, cleaning up the environment-and they will pay off for years to come. The public supports it, there is a crying need for it, and it will have the most impact on the economy. At a time when the Bush Administration proposes spending every single dime of the Social Security surplus on tax cuts, this is an argument that can be won with the American public. It's something that we can win with on Capitol Hill, but it is going to demand that people push back.

Given the large national appetite for federal transportation dollars, how critical is it that metro areas like Los Angeles speak with one voice in Washington to communicate its priorities? For example, in Los Angeles the MTA and the Area Chamber of Commerce have created a group called Mobility-21 with the purpose of having a region the size of 27 states to more effectively speak with one voice with regard to the re-authorization bill.

The population of the Los Angeles Basin is larger than most states and has an economy that would probably rank it in the top dozen in the world. If you're able to make the case clearly and in a concise manner, it will cut though thestatic on Capitol Hilland eliminate an excuse for people not to meet your needs because they are confused about your priorities. When people who lose their focus and start bickering amongst themselvesI have seen how eyes glaze over in subcommittee meetings and people lose whatever momentum they had.

In addition, speaking with one voice will help dictate the national discussion. Los Angeles can have a voice that people willhear. The national, and indeed international, media will magnify the message and L.A. could help determine the direction of this great national debate. It's critical for your own purposes, but it also will make a difference in making sure that the country is properly addressing these huge, long-term, complicated and expensive issues.

Last question, Earl. Regional leaders, in collaboration with SCAG, our metropolitan planning agency, has just begun a two-year growth visioning process which is being guided by an Oregonian, John Fregonese. What advice and counsel would you give to this effort? What good can come from it?

It is essential for your region to develop its vision for the next 25 years.. In the past, periods of explosive growth, have held a mystique, a vision, and a momentum. Some would suggest that it wasn't necessarily always the best long-term, sustainable vision, but it was powerful, it was compelling, and people bought into it. It's time now for people in the Los Angeles area to re-craft a vision that is as compelling and that can be understood and supported both by the majority of decision makers and the general public. This vision needs to incorporate sustainability and broader, grass-roots participation from the outset.

I am excited about the steps that you've already taken-the collaboration and coordination, for example, between transit and the business community. You had the right sort of kick-off for your visioning process and have the potential to get broad-based citizen support. Southern California, whether you like it or not, is a national leader and you can help set the right tone for a new generation of community plans around the country. While Oregon made its own way-some people are impressed with the Portland experience- we're sort of an upper-left coast oddity. We don't command the support, we don't have the resources, and frankly, we're not as important to the nation as Los Angeles. Thus, your visioning process is essential. My hope is that there's broad-based participation in order to make it work.


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