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Blumenauer on new transportation bill: “A missed opportunity” and a “call to arms”

Posted by on July 2nd, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Blumenauer on the Hawthorne Bridge.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

As the dust has settled a bit on the new, two-year transportation bill that was passed last week, it’s time to start understanding what it means for bicycling going forward. On Friday, I got a chance to talk about it with one of the most important national figures for bicycling, U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer.

Blumenauer is not only regarded as a major champion for bicycling in Congress, as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, he also had a seat at the table of the conference committee that hashed out the final bill. At the outset of our conversation, I could hear from his voice that he was exasperated after what must have been a bruising negotiation process.

“I am literally spending the weekend and early next week working with some folks to start the push back… This is a call to arms, we’ve got two years for people to realize this stuff really matters.”

To quickly reset, GOP leadership in the House came out with a bill (H.R. 7) that was so off-base they couldn’t even pass it with their majority. The Senate bill (MAP-21) was much-preferred among active transportation advocates. After it passed the Senate with bipartisan support, many hoped the House would just adopt it, pass it, and we could move forward. But of course, that didn’t happen.

An obstinate House GOP refused to take up the Senate bill, so a conference committee was set up and the two chambers negotiated through each component of the bill to finally reach an agreement. While the bill is an improvement over H.R. 7, the Senate Bill traded away a lot during the committee process. What we are left with, according to experts, is a very disappointing bill whose only silver lining is that funding for biking wasn’t stripped away completely.

Blumenauer couldn’t quite put a finger on just how he felt as he traveled back to Portland for the Fourth of July recess. Do you feel tired/frustrated/relieved/happy? I asked: “It’s just weird,” he replied, “I little bit of all of the above.”

He continued, “It’s such a missed opportunity. We really had a chance for the Senate to hold firm and they didn’t. If it was up to me I would have called their bluff because the pressure was mounting.”

As to why the Senate caved in the negotiations, Blumenauer said it was simply pressure. “The clock was ticking and they saw what the Republicans did on the debt ceiling and they allowed FAA funding to completely expire… I think the Senate just thought they’d [the House GOP] actually just shoot the hostage.”

Straining for some good news, Blumenauer said that, given how terrible the House bill was, “Part of me feels that it’s a modest victory that we were able to beat back the bad stuff.”

Modest victory aside, there’s still a lot of bad stuff in the bill that passed. Blumenauer called the “gutting” of the Safe Routes to Schools program, “gratuitous” and “really weird.” Now that three years of work to try and make this a good bill is over, Blumenauer is resigned: “It is what it is.”

He’s also wasting no time in setting the groundwork to pass a better bill when this one expires in September 2014 (thankfully, this bill only lasts 27 months, instead of the usual six year length).

“I am literally spending the weekend and early next week working with some folks to start the push back… This is a call to arms, we’ve got two years for people to realize this stuff really matters.”

Blumenauer said he intends to tap into the broad coalition that formed around opposition to H.R. 7 (600 organizations and politicians signed a petition against it). He wants elected officials and those campaigning for House seats to hold local forums on transportation issues. He wants people to keep the discussion going and to use the new bill as an example of what not to do.

One reason the bill passed despite these concerns from high-profile leaders like Blumenauer is that it became known as the “jobs bill” and it also included a student loan provision. In short, a “no” vote on this bill would have been political suicide.

Even without the “jobs” label or the student loan provision, Blumenauer told me he would have still voted for the bill. He worried that yet another short-term extension and another partisan impasse would have “frayed the coalition.” “If things really got toxic, who knows what would have happened,” he said, “We need to keep that coalition united as much as we can.” he said.

When that day comes, Blumenauer is very optimistic. Several times during our conversation he mentioned that he’s gotten calls and emails of support from road building trade and construction groups who are, “All in this with us. They’re appreciative of what we’re doing and are also looking at the long-term.” Blumenauer said that aligning with those powerful lobbies is how we’ll get a “bigger vision enacted” come 2014.

When it comes to the national bicycling movement in general; Blumenauer said the disappointing new bill is more a sign of the “toxic nature of House politics” than a cause to switch tactics. He believes the movement is headed in the right direction and that, “After all this work, we just can’t abandon where we’re at.” [Trek Bicycle Corp. President John Burke wrote last week that, “Too many people sat on the sidelines and as a cause we need to be better organized next time around.”]

He feels the House GOP is so out of touch on transportation issues that it will cost them in the next election. “There are some thing that are almost impossible to defend,” he said. In particular was a vote in the House last week that approved an amendment to prevent any further research by the US DOT into a vehicle miles traveled tax.

A VMT tax is seen by many experts as one of the most viable options to the floundering gas tax. Blumenauer himself was instrumental in pushing for a pilot research project in Oregon years ago that has begun to bear real fruit at the state level.

“No research, not testing, no pilot programs, nothing,” Blumenauer said about that vote with a sad laugh, “There’s great interest in what we’ve done in Oregon, and everybody with their wits about them knows we have less than a decade to make the transition to something other than the gas tax.”

With this fight (which could have been much uglier) now in the rear-view mirror, Blumenauer feels that he and other reformers are “living to fight another day.”

Check out a full breakdown of the new bill (including side-by-side comparison with existing bill) by America Bikes.

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Alan 1.0Mike DemewsbobMark AllynGlowBoy Recent comment authors
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Fred Lifton
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Fred Lifton

The House republicans have displayed a knack for destroying American infrastructure that far exceeds the abilities of Al Qaeda. How ironic.

Kevin Wagoner
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Kevin Wagoner

Is line item veto a possibility?

DoubleB
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DoubleB

How much money has gone into this VMT tax system when Oregon (and the Feds for that matter) could simply raise the gas tax.

It’s a good proxy for miles driven and punishes drivers who want large, fuel-inefficient vehicles.

Joe Rowe
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Joe Rowe

This sounds a lot like his policy plan for many things. Take the “steam out” of the republicans by taking a passive role. Only to get steam rolled and then offer an apology or blame the republicans. Even if this is a jobs bill he should vote no. If they combine war with jobs, vote no.

Jeff Bernards
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Jeff Bernards

I contacted Blumenauer’s office about our initiative to Ban Studded tires in Oregon. I talked several times with his asst. Willie Smith, but never to Earl. Saving money and reducing CO2 are several of the many benefits, if studded tires were banned. Saving money could help free up money for some of the things they felt we couldn’t afford. Asking for more money is easy, savings is where the “new” money is going to be found.
The more I learned about studded tires and the damage they do to OUR roads and the environment, I felt when the Ban took effect in Oregon, it would be seen as a model for the nation. New Stud less tire technology has come so far that studs are pretty much obsolete.
Were taking the initiative to Salem, please write your representative and tell them you want some action on the studded tire legislation that is being proposed.
Thanks

GlowBoy
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GlowBoy

“A VMT tax is seen by many experts as one of the most viable options to the floundering gas tax.” I am absolutely opposed to a VMT unless it accounts for vehicle size and weight. Taxing an Escalade driver the same as a Civic driver would be ridiculous and disastrous. The Escalade uses 3x the energy, spews 3x the emissions, takes up a lot more space (both on the road and while parked), causes 27x the road wear and poses many times more danger to other road users.

Of course, as already pointed out the gas tax already does more or less account for vehicle size and weight, and penalizes aggressive driving to boot … the better solution is to grow some political balls and raise the gas tax already.

I’m not too worried about EVs not “paying their fair share”. They are, and for quite a few years will continue to be, such a miniscule share of road use that it doesn’t really matter and taxing them would make as much sense as registering and taxing bicycle owners. And the fact that we’re effectively subsidizing them by not taxing their fuel is fine with me. When batteries get energy-dense enough and cost-effective enough to make large electric SUVs practical and affordable, then we can talk about an alternate way of taxing them. But that is many, MANY years off.

9watts
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9watts

We tell ourselves that raising the gasoline tax is politically suicidal. (unhelpful, self-fulfilling, unempowered–but let’s skip over that for the moment)

Then someone cooks up a complicated and expensive variant that is called a VMT tax. Presumably the guy who came up with this thinks that because it isn’t called a gasoline tax it stands a better chance of passing. Not only that, but it’s hypothesized better chances more than outweigh its complexity, expense, and flaws.

What a weird way to go about this. Why not just raise the gas tax. Has anyone actually tried to do this of late? What do we imagine to be so magically different about (nearly) everyone else in the world–who live in countries that have real gasoline taxes that discourage frivolous driving and raise real money?

Chris I
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Chris I

Also, it’s good to see that the Republicans are perfectly okay with deficit spending, provided it goes towards subsidizing highway spending… and it seems they are okay with deficit war spending as well.

Mark Allyn
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Do we know who in the Senate authored the mandatory side-path provision?

Google was useless in trying to get that information.

GlowBoy
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GlowBoy

What! There’s a mandatory sidepath provision in this bill?

Mark Allyn
Guest

Thank you. I looked at the BikeLeage blog and saw the references.

I don’t know if it’s worth going onto that blog and asking for the names of the sources only because we should contact the bike clubs and bike shops in those senators’ districts in an attempt to start a movement in those districts to get rid of them.

Is it worthwhile for me to go onto that blog and attempt to demand the names?

Mark Allyn
Guest

Thank you, Alan.

Mike Deme
Guest

Ginny Sullivan is the Special Projects Director for Adventure Cycling Association. She is not with the BikeLeague, by which I think you mean the League of American Bicyclists. It is Adventure Cycling Association that is spearheading the efforts toward the United States Bicycle Route System (USBRS).