February 24, 2006 - From the February, 2006 issue

Portland's Congressman Blumenauer Pledges to Support California's Transportation Initiatives

In an age of divisive politics and pork-barrel legislation that allows politicians to look out only for their home districts, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, of Oregon's 3rd District, offers a refreshing perspective. In the following speech delivered at this month's Mobility 21 meeting in L.A., Rep. Blumenauer not only presents his vision for 21st century federal transportation appropriations, but also explains why he wants those appropriations to benefit California – especially its cities – every bit as much as they do Oregon.

Earl Blumenauer

Many people, especially those of you who live in Los Angeles and Southern California, have a clear idea about what's wrong here. People talk about congestion and air pollution, perhaps about the fact that housing isn't completely affordable, and about your political challenges. All of that is true.

But we need to understand the flip side of those problems. The Los Angeles region is larger than all but three states; in fact, many people actually think of your region as the functional equivalent of a nation. A region of this scale requires broad, well-thought-out solutions. And from what I've seen from my numerous visits here is that you are in the process of implementing some of the most cutting-edge solutions to be found anywhere in the country. For instance, to build the Orange Line light rail, you didn't wait for Congress and the administration to figure out what it's doing with rail passenger service; you went ahead with your own vision. There may yet be high-speed rail between Los Angeles and the Bay area; I hope that you pursue it.

Many people in your own region aren't even aware of many of the cutting-edge things you're doing. But others are paying attention. Some of the Portland developers who have helped turn sagging areas into national showpieces are now down here working because they see the opportunity in L.A.

But my concern – which my friend David Abel [MIR's publisher] and I have been talking about for eight or nine years – is that all of the good work you've been doing is not necessarily done in the most comprehensive, integrated way. There are lots of bits and pieces, but the region and the state does not yet have a comprehensive vision. You're not quite there yet.

As you develop nearly a quarter-trillion dollars worth of investments in transportation and other infrastructure, I look forward to seeing you succeed, especially as you frame those investments in a comprehensive way that reinforces your other goals and values. More than a list of projects, you need a key to unlocking your vision. After all, the package you are bringing forward is closer to the year 2050 than to 1959, when Governor Pat Brown proposed a similar series of projects. Your current approach has to be forward-thinking, and I am eager to see what you will do to bring all the pieces together.

Hats off to those of you who have organized Mobility 21's series of conferences and conversations, which gathers all the horsepower in one room. I do a lot of work in other parts of the country and I have not seen a larger, more focused, more educated or energized group than Mobility 21. I think it's going to make a big difference.

While you are crafting the next phase of California's infrastructure, we should also be thinking about how to work together to tailor the next piece of federal legislation to support your visionary partnership. I've had long conversations with many members of Mobility 21 about the last federal transportation bill re-authorization, which required 12 extensions and was more than two years late. Some of you were cranky; I know I was not a happy camper. And it's been difficult for me, as I travel to other parts of the country every month, trying to promote livable communities and transportation, to somehow explain to people why Congress was so late with such a critical piece of legislation that had such a broad, bi-partisan base of support.

We had everybody from the Sierra Club to the National Chamber of Commerce to my favorite lobbying group – the Women's Federated Garden Clubs of America – backing us up! Those ladies look buttoned-down, but they're vicious. Their scorn and ire is bi-partisan and – fortunately for you – they agree with your vision of what transportation should look like in the 21st century.

The last transportation bill had support from a broad coalition that understood how that legislation would make a huge difference for everyone across the country. It would jump-start the economy. It had broad bi-partisan support in Congress, yet it took years to pass. We don't want that to happen here.

Part of the problem was that the Bush Administration – and my Republican friends would back me up on this – had an unrealistic idea of how much the bill was going to cost. They wanted a 10 percent cut in real dollars. Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation – their Department of Transportation – issued a report that said we didn't need the administration's proposed $257 billion; we needed $375 billion just to keep pace with inflation. So that caused a bit of concern. We were also hung up over distribution. When there wasn't enough money, people started fighting over the terms, creating a big battle between donor and donee states.

The next transportation bill will have to address a different kind of donor/donee discussion. For as much as there is an inequity between donor and donee states, the real scandal lies in the discrepancies between donor and donee regions. It's not just that one state gets 91 cents on the dollar when another state gets $1.05. The scandal is that the discrepancies between gas tax contributions and receipts are even wider on the regional scale. The last time I checked, the Los Angeles region had contributed something like $1.16 billion more into the federal gas tax coffers than it got back. That's a disparity. Interestingly, the problem of regional inequities exists in ‘red' states as well; Dallas, for example gets back only 78 cents on each dollar it pays in. Somebody in the Texas congressional delegation ought to be upset about that.


Our metropolitan areas are the source of our economic prosperity. And it's our metropolitan areas – not places like Lame Deer, Wyoming – that also have problems with congestion and air pollution. So we need to work with you to think about provisions in the next transportation bill to ensure that our states and the federal government return funds to the areas with the biggest problems. The next transportation bill should be large and robust; we can't allow the funding to be ratcheted down for years to come.

We also need to be thinking comprehensively, because transportation is one area of the federal budget that actually makes money. Done wisely, federal dollars invested in transportation infrastructure can help coax investments from the private sector, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in income taxes, corporate taxes, and property taxes. Transportation investments can also create wealth for property owners while it avoids costs associated with air pollution and congestion.

We also need to have a conversation about where our transportation dollars are going to come from. The highway trust fund is dropping rapidly; the surplus is gone. And more fuel-efficient cars, coupled with $3 or $4 or $5 a gallon gas prices, means that we're not going to be pumping as many gallons. We'll have the same transportation demands, but less revenue to pay for them. So whether it's congestion pricing or pay-at-the-pump for insurance and auto registration, or a national weight-mile tax – I'm agnostic on the specifics – we need to acknowledge that today's sources of revenue won't be sufficient to meet our needs. We need to have a frank discussion about how we're going to fund our vision before the wheels fall of our federal and state funding mechanisms,

We also need to be thinking about how we envision mobility in the future. You are doing some great work here in terms of Green Freight movement, the Alameda corridor, and intermodalism. We need to put the "I" back in ISTEA. Those connections are critical and we need to spend some time together to make sure that we're not just hanging on by our fingertips to Senator Moynihan's vision for ISTEA. We've been kind of coasting since that bill was passed in 1991. We can't afford for TEA-4 – due to be authorized less than four years from now – to be running on fumes.

I have my own vision. I'd like to see the next transportation bill be known as "Green TEA." And, if I had my way, there would be one uniform-match provision for both highways and public transit. I don't care if the federal match is 50-50 or three-to-one. The point is that the federal funding formula ought not to skew local transportation decisions. Sadly, this happens all too often.

For a number of years, the funding formula for federal flood control projects favored paving the Los Angeles River over restoring wetlands – even though the wetlands restoration was a cheaper, more effective, and more environmentally benign solution. Similarly, federal funding formulas drove the massive freeway construction binge in this country. Freeways got free money, but if you wanted to build the Red Line, you were on your own.

It might be time for the federal government to say that the formula for transportation dollars is going to be the same, regardless of the mode. Then you – the individual regions – would get to decide whether the best solution for your region is light rail or bus rapid transit, or a parkway, a freeway, a streetcar, or a tram. It's your money and your responsibility to implement the solution that will best meet your needs. I don't think this approach is far-fetched, but if we don't start talking about it, it's not going to happen.

Some of you have said that you consider me the "19th member" of your congressional delegation; David Abel suggested that I am "his" congressman. I want you to feel that I am indeed your congressperson.

I'm from Oregon, and there is nobody in North America more committed to helping you solve your problems of congestion, of pollution, of affordable housing. We want you to become the model for success. I will do anything I can to work with your delegation, regardless of party or whatever the committee, to drive these points home. And, on a very serious note, we are all in this together. Your pollution becomes our pollution. Your problems moving freight though the ports of L.A. and Long Beach have an immediate ripple effect on the economy on the entire country. No one can afford you to be the pig in the python of the national freight distribution system. For better or worse, we're joined, and I think it's for better.

I appreciate the hard work you're doing. I look forward to monitoring your progress, and I look forward to seeing you in Washington if you'd like to visit the "19th member" of your delegation.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.