November 18, 2005 - From the November, 2005 issue

California's Share of T3 Transportation Funding Assessed for Lessons Learned

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon's 3rd District sits on the House transportation committee, and in that capacity he has consistently supported mass transit and smart growth. Congress recently extended funding for the TEA-21 transportation act of 1998 and crafted the next generation of transportation appropriations, SAFETEA-LU, which was signed (T3) in August. In this exclusive MIR interview, Congressman Blumenauer (D) offers some insight into the process that led to the allocation of federal funds for infrastructure projects, and he explains what California can-and cannot -expect to receive from Washington.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer

Congressman, with T3 federal transportation funding now approved and flowing, our readers would appreciate your analysis, since you played a large role in its adoption, on how Southern California fared.

A fair amount of money was shifted to the bottom half of your state in the final months of negotiations in Congress, due to the efforts of Congressman Bill Thomas (Bakersfield), who played a significant role in closing the dollar gap; he was one of the final half-dozen members in the room for the final efforts. A big chunk of change, not entirely coincidentally, showed up around the Bakersfield area for road improvements.

I had been led to believe from my visits to the Los Angeles Basin that a very high priority had been given to the Alameda Corridor. It's worth a look to ascertain how the final bill matches the overall priorities of your region. This review could help form the region's game plan for the next reauthorization, "T4."

The unfortunate fact is that, despite the support of a broad coalition, the T3 process was troublesome; congressional dynamics simply didn't work very well. Even after 12 temporary extensions, there are clearly some elements of the bill that don't look very good, such as the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska. T3 simply didn't provide enough money for our nation's transportation needs – although it did include a great number of earmarks that run the gamut from some pretty grim projects to some that are innovative. Now is the time to review the process and the substance of this bill; we only have about a year to assess its impact before we mobilize our forces for the next one.

Four years from now, we are going to have a dramatically different political landscape. There will be a new administration that will be more favorable to investments in transportation infrastructure. Even my Republican colleagues admit that the next President, regardless of party affiliation, will care more about transportation infrastructure. There will be new committee leadership. Obviously, I'm rooting for my team to be in charge, but even if the Republicans retain control, there will be new Republican leadership in the House and churn in the Senate. Now is the time for us to be moving forward.

We also have to face another serious issue: the Highway Trust Fund isn't going to work. The current fixed cent/gallon formula simply will not produce enough money for our transportation needs. Three-dollar a gallon gasoline, coupled with the dramatic increase in construction costs for everything from land acquisition to structural steel, puts us in an entirely different economic ballgame. We have to start thinking now about how we're going to fund our transportation infrastructure and what it's going to buy.

Let's go back over that political landscape that you just traced for us. How does the planning of T3 relate to that of other infrastructure appropriation bills?

Most of the people who care about transportation infrastructure believe in making appropriate investments in the right places in the right way. Those of us who have been advocating for quality of life policies have been hanging on by our fingernails since the late Senator Patrick J. Moynihan ushered in a new era of transportation with ISTEA in 1991. TEA 21, passed in 1997, retained the same basic framework and increased the funding, although not quite to the level we wanted. With T3, however, we faced an administration that proposed an 11 percent cut and threatened a veto until the very end. We also had people in key positions who didn't really subscribe to the basic tenets of the flexibility, planning, and multimodal dimensions of the earlier bills. As a result, federal transportation funding has been in a holding pattern since 1991. It's a trend we can't afford to continue in the next reauthorization in 2009.

What specifically can't we afford to lose if this trend in transportation funding continues?

There is growing awareness, even in some unlikely political constituencies, that the ‘60's and ‘70's approach to transportation can't continue to rely solely on expansion; simply paying for more lanes and more roads without a sensitivity to construction, design, land use, or intermodal connections doesn't work.

The irony is that while frustration with unplanned growth has been driven home at the state and local level-again, in some unlikely jurisdiction -it has not been reflected at the federal policy level. In places like Houston, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Denver-where transit was heresy, light rail was inconceivable, and the notion of land use planning was an inconvenience – people are now recognizing that nobody has been able to pave their way out of congestion. They are beginning to understand that you need balance and connections and you need to plan the infrastructure right.

We need a federal transportation policy that coaxes the maximum value from our infrastructure investments and minimizes the public conflicts. Political paralysis around infrastructure investments is the biggest obstacle imaginable; nothing kills projects like delay. Land, materials, and labor costs are skyrocketing, while environmental and opportunity costs are horrendous. Clearly there are more cost-effective ways to invest our scarce resources. I find it ironic that we're now seeing unlikely state transportation departments realize that 45 mph parkways can actually move more people more effectively than high speed freeways, and that connecting skinny streets can be a better investment than building highway bypasses. There's a revolution taking place on the ground, but some state departments of transportation and federal players are not getting the support they need to spend our transportation dollars more wisely.

Update our readers on the preparations and planning going into the next transportation bill, T4. As you just said, it's coming up fast because T3 took forever.

I do believe that it's important for each metropolitan area to start planning for T4 while memories of T3 are still fresh. In most jurisdictions, the local coalitions are still intact, as are the people who carried the banner. Each jurisdiction/region must take a hard look at what they got out of T3, what worked and what didn't, and where transportation deficiencies continue to persist. It is important for people to understand what is in T3, as well as how they can help their Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and their state DOTs use the tools available in the bill.

Los Angeles has a new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, who has assumed the chairmanship of our Metropolitan Transit Agency. How might his leadership support the work you have identified to build on and improve T3?

I think your mayor has a good grasp of the principles of a livable community – something that is particularly important, due to the national visibility of his position and his leadership as the most visible and powerful Latino local politician in the nation. This is a huge issue in terms of the changing demographics of our country and in terms of the cultural values Latinos bring to our communities. I hope that he is able to seize on the opportunities for transportation choices for Los Angeles and effectively communicate how something like a streetcar can improve local communities. The changes, dynamics, and scale of Los Angeles are in the national eye more than any other city. It also has a congressional delegation that is well positioned to make things happen. Lucille Roybal-Allard has capitalized on her leadership with the Hispanic caucus to advance her constituents' interests. Republicans such as Buck McKeon and Jerry Lewis, respected by their colleagues on both sides of the aisle, do an excellent job of representing stressed areas that have significant development opportunities. These congressional resources, aided by Mayor Villaraigosa, provide Los Angeles with great potential. These leaders can serve as catalysts – not just for Southern California, but to help us move this important discussion along at the national level.


Many in California believe that this Congress has an "any place but California" mindset when it comes to appropriations. Is there any truth to this assessment?

One of the things that hung up T3 for two years was the tension between donor and donee states; people wanted to get a minimum of 95 percent back in transportation funding and they were chafing because it was only 89 or 90 or 91 cents on the dollar. Californians certainly have a case to be made; last year, you received 90.5 cents back for every dollar you contributed. But as I visit other communities across the country, almost every state and region has similar bones to pick.

But the issue is not just between donor and donee states: the federal government has not been treating its metropolitan areas fairly. In fact, it's not uncommon for our metro areas to be getting back 70 cents on the dollar, and some deficits are even greater. One of the most glaring discrepancies is in Southern California, but it also occurs in Texas and in most of the metropolitan areas around the country. We need to correct this imbalance as we address the next reauthorization.

What in T3, or perhaps in next year's bill, will offer incentives for private investment in our transportation infrastructure? There appears to be private capital available; is there much interest at the federal level in encouraging public/private partnerships to build much-needed projects?

In terms of incentives and flexibility for public/private partnerships, Congress has always found it much easier to give tax breaks, which have the same effect on the treasury as a direct appropriation. Thus, members have looked at opportunities for expanding tax credits for some innovative infrastructure investment, and I think this is entirely appropriate. We certainly ought to be rewarding metropolitan regions that are doing more and more on their own. In return for a smaller percentage of federal money they should be given more flexibility-reduced federal oversight and regulation-about how it is spent. Compliance with federal rules and regulations and timetables is a huge driver on major federal project costs.

For projects that have a significant portion of state, local and private funding, it is entirely appropriate for the smaller federal share to come quicker and with less strings; ultimately this will save the federal government money. Instead of waiting to receive a federal share of 80 percent, you may well be better off getting 20 or 30 percent – or maybe a tax break -- from federal funds quickly, with more flexibility. I think these are all areas worth exploring. If a tax break or the structure of federal participation can result in saving billions of dollars and lessening the reins so you can do it faster, you ought to have that option.

Trade and goods movement, which because of our two ports and the inadequacy of our present infrastructure, contributes greatly to our region's congestion, is fast becoming metro L.A.'s highest priority for transportation investment. With other metro regions in the country, including Houston, New York/New Jersey, Chicago and Miami, experiencing the same congestion, is there interest at the federal level in providing relief?

In T3, there was a compelling case made across the country for greater attention to the movement of freight and the inter-modal connections. Our latest effort does not go far enough. Goods movement not only provides significantly to our economy, it can be a major contributor to congestion and air pollution.

So I'm hopeful that we can take this coalition that's been forged from people in L.A./Long Beach, in the Midwest, and in the Northwest to structure a more aggressive program for freight-specific investments and inter-modal connections.

It doesn't do us any good to move goods by ship, rail or truck if we can't make the connections seamless. It is now an article of faith that it takes longer to get a product through Chicago than it takes to get it from LA to Chicago; the federal government needs to address these problems.

Let's end with your comments on a related issue, the federal government role in responding to natural disasters, i.e. Katrina and Rita?

This is perhaps the single most important event for those of us that care about advancing livable communities at the federal level. Tragic circumstances have given us the closest we're likely to get to a blank slate and we need to seize the opportunity to do it right. As we've been looking at development and infrastructure improvements in Southern California and other parts of the country, we've been continually vexed by the challenge of getting people to take a comprehensive and regional view of these challenges. Even when the regional dialogue comes together, it's hard to generate investments as well as attention at the state and federal level; there's never a sense of urgency until there's a disaster. In one fell swoop, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita provided this urgency and forced people to look at comprehensive solutions.

All of a sudden, we have a certain harmony between local, state, and federal interests. There is a sense of urgency. In the course of spending tens of billions of dollars, I'm hopeful that we can give a voice to the people who have been affected, people who have been economically and politically marginalized in this region for years.

Katrina's destruction has also forced us to look at the relationship between the built and natural environments – something that does not come easily in this region. People have now seen what it means to lose wetlands at the rate of an acre every half-hour in Louisiana alone.

Our challenge now is to tie the pieces together, to create a comprehensive approach that doesn't lose momentum or result in sub-optimal solutions. Given the significant impact Katrina's had on members of Congress, I think we have a 50 percent chance of being successful.


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