February 26, 2012 - From the March, 2012 issue

Rep. Blumenauer Opines: Congress’ ‘Terrible’ Transportation Bill

In February, the House of Representatives proposed a $260 billion transportaton bill that would have relieved the current stop-gap spending set to expire at the end of March. TPR spoke with Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Portland to better understand how the Republican-sponsored authorization aims to meet highway funding through shifting public transit monies to the general fund. Rep. Blumenauer explains his opposition to the bill and what we might expect from Congress. On February 23, Speaker John Boehner announced that Republicans would rework the bill and intended to eliminate controversial provisions on public transportation.


Earl Blumenauer

“The national landscape is littered with transportation projects that did not properly take into account environmental and land use consequences.” -Congressman Earl Blumenauer

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has described the current House transportation bill as the most partisan transportation bill that he has ever seen in his many years in Congress and in public life. The New York Times recently editorialized it as, ‘A Terrible Transportation Bill’. What is your assessment of the House’s draft reauthorization of transportation funding bill? 

Well, the NY Times and Secretary LaHood have it right—this is the worst transportation bill in history that has ever been proposed by a major committee, and it is the most partisan exercise that anybody has seen. As a twelve-year member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as someone who followed it for years before entering Congress, and as someone working with it more closely, arguably, than some of the current members, I am frankly appalled. 

This legislation was advanced without a hearing, and I challenge you to find anything as complex and sweeping as the surface transportation reauthorization that has been treated in this fashion. Historically, there have been three factors at play in the House of Representatives: Republicans, Democrats, and members of the T and I committee. This bizarre and brazen act has shattered that time-honored tradition, which gave it certain strength and made it an island in a storm of choppy partisan waters for the last twenty years. 

It’s quite clear that nobody knew what they were voting on and that nobody has any sense of what the consequences of this bill could be. I led the charge in the Ways and Means Committee to strike the language that guts the trust fund mass transit account, which thirty years ago formed in an agreement with Ronald Reagan, holding that 20 percent of gas tax revenues would be dedicated to mass transit. That bargain from 1982 was not just a reflection of the importance of mass transit as the fastest and cheapest way to reduce highway congestion—it was an effort to avoid an annual tug of war between transportation interests. 

This was a truce, if you will, that enabled transit to have long-term stability in their portion of the trust fund. It kept a balance, and one could argue whether that balance should be adjusted, but no one disputed that it is a very important national priority. 

We have made remarkable strides over the course of the last 20 years, particularly after the passage of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s landmark ISTEA legislation in 1991. That comprehensive transportation reform enabled a holistic view to be taken towards transportation. It strengthened the role of planning, which for too long had been an afterthought for state departments of transportation. Sadly that’s still the situation with some states. 

According to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL), “This is a five year bill that reforms our federal transportation programs, cuts the red tape and bureaucracy that delays projects across the country, gives states more flexibility to determine their most critical infrastructure needs, provides states with the long-term stability to undertake major improvements, and encourages private sector participation in helping to finance transportation projects.” How do you respond to Chairman Mica’s assertions? 

No independent commentator would say that this draft Transportation funding bill is mere streamlining. It goes far beyond that in terms of gutting environmental protections and enabling the President to suspend procedural and environmental protections. 

One of the questions asked when this was unveiled was, “so, this would mean that President Obama could repeal all environmental provisions if his priority was accelerating the implementation of higher-speed rail in the state of California?” This was directed towards one of your California members, and he didn’t have a good answer and he hadn’t really thought of it in that context. 

In a number of my past TPR/MIR interviews, we have discussed opportunities to improve the process, but the House’s draft bill is reckless in the extreme. The national landscape is littered with transportation projects that did not properly take into account environmental and land use consequences. 

But in fairness, Congressman, Representative Mica’s approach is very similar to President Hu Jintao’s admired and expeditious approach to building China’s infrastructure. 

Well, somewhere between where we are and the Chinese dictatorship, I suggest, is a more appropriate balance. What I have seen in many of the projects that have required a long time to bring to fruition is that people didn’t do the public participation, the planning, and the outreach at the beginning. 

You definitely need to have a balanced approach going forward. We’re continually working to try to define this. I am one who believes that we have more federal oversight and involvement than is necessary in the transit arena. I was very pleased with the proposed rules that have come out of the FTA for rail projects, for instance. For light rail and street cars, there is work that we could do, but circumnavigating environmental protections and taking the communist Chinese approach of the central government trumping state and local government, I don’t think these form a wise long-term path. 

Congressman, on November 2nd of last year, you, along with Representative Dave Reichart (R-WA) introduced the American Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit Extension Act (H.R. 3307). It seems to have bipartisan support. What is that bill’s status, and why is its approach important? 

We have made extraordinary progress in the enhancement of America’s energy security with solar and wind energy, and even geothermal and hopefully tidal energy. It is absolutely critical that we have a broader portfolio of energy sources so that we are not mortgaging our energy future to people who basically don’t like us. 

We’re nearing the end of the production tax credit this year. Although wind energy has made remarkable strides and the cost per kilowatt-hour has dropped dramatically, it isn’t quite yet competitive with other sources that, frankly, have embedded subsidies and costs imposed on us. Oil is heavily subsidized; nuclear has received massive subsidization from the beginning of the nuclear program, and the problems associated with energy produced by coal are well documented. In fact, the health cost that we all bear as a result will be a financial burden for generations. 

Wind energy still needs the help that is provided by the production tax credit. We’re not proposing that this be permanent the way that, sadly, the subsidies for oil have been. Instead we are giving wind another window to enable it to grow, to develop, and to further reduce costs. The industry has dramatically increased the efficiency of the turbine design, and they have learned how to operate longer periods of time. If we do not extend the production tax credit, as the year progresses we’ll see investments fall. 

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This is not going to just reduce power—it’s going to be a blow to our ability to manufacture the elements necessary for producing the wind energy. We’ve got growing productions in the United States in a number of different locations. All of this will slow and come to a complete halt before the end of the year. We’ve seen it ramp up and ramp down before, and our goal is to move this along in whatever vehicles available. We’re working hard to get additional bipartisan cosponsors so that it’s ready to go when some tax vehicle starts to move. 

Congressman, let’s return to the possibility of a bipartisan approach to infrastructure and transportation reauthorization. Is there a conceivable way out of this partisan stalemate, either in this congress or the next? 

Part of the problem that we’ve discussed before is that we’re in a box, in terms of revenue. This bill, even after taking the 20 percent of the trust fund dedicated to transit and having it fill the gap for highways, and even after reducing the highway program, it’s still $5 billion short. This is not a long-term solution, and, in fact, the bill is not properly sized. 

We’ve had two presidential commissions examine our transportation infrastructure needs and have pointed to a need to dramatically scale up our investments. It should be on an order of magnitude of  $100 billion a year. That, if anything, is not enough to remain competitive in the global economy of the future. 

I’ve been meeting with a broad coalition of stakeholders for the last four or five years. We routinely meet with people from organized labor, the chamber of commerce, engineers, local government, transit, bicycle groups, truckers, and architects, from the Garden Club to the Sierra Club. This coalition has testified before congressional committees (at least prior to this congress) on the need for more investment in transportation. There has even been support for raising the gas tax. Truckers, the Chamber of Commerce, business organization, unions, and the Simpson-Bowles task force have come out in support of this. 

What we ought to be doing is working cooperatively, facing up to the revenue question because this bill, even if it were to be adopted in its entirety, would not close the highway gap and would shatter the coalition. It will make it almost impossible to get the road revenues that are necessary. I remember being told by a former mayor of Phoenix that they couldn’t obtain local support for increased funding for roads, and it was only after they combined it with transit that there was a broad enough appeal to the public. 

Across America, metropolitan areas are getting better at putting the pieces together and using the federal partnership as the foundation of a coalition. That is what leads to public-private partnerships, and that is what leads to more local investment. I think we ought to build on the vision of ISTEA, working together on intermodal and reasonable planning efforts. 

Three and a half years ago we carried in The Planning Report your remarks about energizing a federal effort to rebuild a new America, referencing the then Speaker’s interest in having a 100 year Gallatin plan for the 21st century. The 2010 congressional elections appear to have undermined that effort? Is a long-range agreement on infrastructure for the nation possible? 

I see as I travel around the country that people care deeply about rebuilding and renewing this country. People are doing this at the metropolitan level right now with local resources. But all our competitors have a national vision and a national program. All our problems extend beyond metropolitan boundaries, and many of them are actually multi-state issues. You have airsheds, watersheds, and trafficsheds that are connected to larger systems. We need, as a country, to make a commitment to deal with crumbling infrastructure but in many more cases infrastructure inadequate for the needs of today, much less the needs of tomorrow. 

I am pleased with some of the announcements that we’ve heard from the Obama administration. They have kept us afloat with money from the recovery act. I wish that it had been less in the area of tax cuts and more in the area of infrastructure, but TIGER grants around the country have had a galvanizing effect. 

Leader Pelosi remains committed to a robust infrastructure approach. She carried that message to President Bush, and she made the argument to the administration during the recovery act in favor of more infrastructure. I think people are starting to see that she was right, that the American public is right, and that this needs to be a critical path going forward. 

It may well be that a transportation bill will have to wait for the next administration to get passed. With the election right now, everything is super charged. It is increasingly likely that there will be a second Obama administration that will be able to advance a broader, more comprehensive vision. 

It is sad that one of the consequences of the Tea Party movement has been to attack local land use and transit projects. The Tea Party Republicans have dramatically scaled back the livability initiatives of the administration, which are wildly popular and are quite effective, and it’s culminating in what is widely regarded as the worst transportation bill in history. Elections matter; this election will matter. I think the more the public understands what is being proposed in Congress with the transportation bill and with the budgets, the more likely there will be changes in Congress to allow us to accomplish things next year. 

Lastly, You’ve been involved with Rail-Volution conferences for more than a decade, and one is coming to Los Angeles this year. Elaborate on Rail-Volution’s goals and the value of being in LA for 2012. 

The Rail-Volution conference grew out of a program I had in Portland to involve the community in transforming our light rail line into a system. After three of these annual conferences we found out there were people from six states and British Columbia participating, and we declared it a national conference. We’ve done it seventeen times, and we’ve been in Los Angeles before. It moves around the country to explore the approaches that various regions have in these critical elements of land use, transportation, planning, mixed-use development, bikes, and streetcars. I can’t think of a more exciting venue for us to have this year. 

Over the years I have been excited as the Southern California that gave us the apogee of the car culture has been increasingly at the forefront of change. Southern California matters. It’s not just the sixth largest economy in the world—it has been a trendsetter for the United States. We’re excited about looking at new approaches to transportation, land use, and certainly pioneering efforts in air quality. So we’re looking forward to a successful conference with people from over two hundred cities around America, to a chance to showcase what’s going on in the LA basin, but also to learning from one another and to inspiring one another in these challenging times. 

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.