(Photos: J.Maus and M.Andersen/BikePortland)
The biggest problem in Earl Blumenauer’s professional life will never be holding onto his job. There aren’t many safer gigs in the country.
Instead, Blumenauer’s challenge is how to make his job count. And one way he’s done so has nothing to do with Congress.
“The people who played a critical role are either moving on to other positions, or they’re pretending to be retired, or they’re gone.”
— Congressman Earl Blumenauer on turnover in Portland civic leadership
A liberal congressman from one of the country’s most liberal districts — most of Portland — this federal politician has found a unique role for himself at the local level. Elected to the state legislature in 1972 at age 24, the 66-year-old Lewis and Clark grad has built his career from Salem to City Hall to the U.S. Capitol. But back home, his most important function might be this: he’s one of the few people in Portland politics who commands near-universal respect.
Blumenauer is popular despite his lack of actual executive power, and also because of it. While poor City Commissioner Steve Novick is stuck in the middle of a ten-way negotiation over the tax brackets of the Portland Street Fund, Blumenauer has been free to spend years floating above the local fray — whether that means hosting the come-to-Jesus meeting between city and county politicians that finally funded the Sellwood Bridge and Tilikum Crossing or letting his deafening silence about the Columbia River Crossing contribute to the death of the project. It’s an enviable role. And a very, very useful one.
Blumenauer’s job here in town, in short, is to be a professional elder statesman.
That’s why we jumped at the a chance to talk to him for an hour. This is a lightly edited transcript of the wide-ranging conversation in which we learned:
- He’s working as hard as he can to convince the city (not the city government, but the city) to turn the opening of Tilikum Crossing this September into a week-long festival for retelling the Portland story and getting Portlanders talking about their next big goal — whatever that will be.
- He thinks the city should have a plan in its back pocket for what the inner eastside would look like without I-5, to be ready on the day a giant earthquake hits.
- He’s very much aware of the stagnation of Portlanders’ biking and transit use, but his bigger worry runs deeper: he fears a stagnation in effective neighborhood activism.
- A few weeks ago he smuggled Salt & Straw ice cream into the White House situation room.
It’s a long read to kick off a couple weeks of year-end reflections and big thoughts here on BikePortland. So grab a warm beverage and enjoy a few solid minutes with the godfather of Portland urbanism.
BikePortland: This interview came out of a conversation with your staffer Andrew Plambeck, who said you’ve been trying to make sure Tilikum Crossing becomes a hinge rather than a finish line. We thought that was interesting.
Earl Blumenauer: It’s, what, 272 days until the bridge opens? [Editor’s note: Woah. It was 271.] When we cut the ribbon, move light rail to Milwaukie, close the streetcar loop, have buses, bikes, and pedestrians on that bridge, it will be the first time in over half a century that there is no federal project in the pipeline. No road, no bridge, no streetcar, no rail. And I don’t know that that’s fully set in with people. So I’ve made it kind of a personal mission in recent months to have people pay attention to that.
What about this bridge project is so important?
I have been spending a lot of time reflecting on some of the things I was involved with when I was commissioner of public works. Jumpstarting a pretty aggressive cycling program. The Central City Plan, which was my first major assignment when I got on the council. That was a 20-year plan that probably should have lasted 10 years. Well, it’s still pretty much intact now.
Most of the people who are here now are either new or have no memory of what happened since the early 70s: the killing of the Mount Hood Freeway, the passing of Senate Bill 100, and very dramatic activity here over the next two decades. I’m not certain how deep the awareness and the appreciation is.
Who’s our champion today? In my recognition, we always had a group and/or a person.
Yeah, usually takes both. I wonder who that is now for really quality bikeways or a network. I haven’t seen anyone step forth, either on Metro, the city or the state legislature. Do you think that’s a problem?
(Pauses.) My objective is to be everybody’s friend, where appropriate to provide some perspective. And I’m very interested in the conversations on the transition. Just as it’s the end of an era in terms of that federal-state-regional partnership, there are all of these institutions are in transition. The people who played a critical role are either moving on to other positions, or they’re pretending to be retired, or they’re gone.
And there are some extraordinarily talented and passionate people who are drawn to Portland or who stay here because of what’s happened. But they may not have a position in business, government, whatever. Another exciting aspect here is to make sure that the people who have become Portlanders by choice, in part because of the quality of life and what’s happened in the last 30 or 40 years, need to be integrated into who we are now and where we’re going.
This upcoming transition that you mentioned — does it provide the community with an opportunity to do things differently?
That remains to be seen. In terms of planning, it seems to me the city in the main has done a pretty good job. But there are issues of resources top to bottom. It’s a failure at the federal level that I’ve been spending a lot of time beating the drum and trying to change. We have not had a six-year comprehensive [federal transporation bill] reauthorization since 1997. Absent some leadership from this next legislature, or vote of the people or both, virtually all the state resources will go toward keeping what we have. Metro is essentially entirely dependent on a trickle of federal pass-through money.
The good news is that over the course of the last quarter-century, we’ve really turned the corner. Many of the development patterns and the revitalization, particularly downtown and in inner-city neighborhoods, are heavily dependent on the success of cycling. It’s also been more significant than I think has been generally understood — that enhancing and integrating this cycling experience is part of what’s added to the vitality and the cachet of Portland. I hear it repeatedly as I go to local businesses.
What we find around the country is that when you are looking at bigger-picture, next-step transitions, they don’t work unless they’re inclusive.
On that note: I look around the region — Southwest Corridor, Powell-Division — what Metro is looking to build is a lot like what we have been building. I’m struck by the fact that they approach transit projects as a default, both in their language and their process. I’m wondering if we’re not at the point where we can approach these things, maybe not as bike projects, but as multimodal projects.
There are all sorts of reasons we do things the way we do. Part of it is habit. Part of it is who we’ve got. We’ve not fully thought through how we’re able to have people feel they’re a part of the process to avoid a debacle like the Columbia River Crossing — which was never as good or as bad as people thought, but there was no vision. There was no buy-in, and it just kind of went along.
At this point, Congressman Blumenauer rose and offered both of us small cups of his personally branded Salt & Straw fruitcake ice cream. It’s pretty good.
We actually smuggled some of it into White House sitation rooms for a briefing on Iran. They check us for guns but not for ice cream.
For a lot of this year we’ve been writing about the idea of biking stagnation in Portland. Bikeway miles are flat. The number of riders are flat. Politics in city hall right now aren’t really great. There’s not a champion. There’s not a real vision. Do you think the word “stagnation” is fair?
Well, over the last 25 years we had a lot of momentum. You could argue that in some cases it was difficult to keep that trajectory going. We’ve had a very difficult six years in terms of infrastructure development and finance, here and nationally. But it is a challenge generally. Nationally there’s been great stuff that’s been happening with cycling in city after city, but the overall performance (here) hasn’t been on an upward trajectory. And it’s something we need to be clear-eyed about, not kid ourselves.
For some of us, the environment has improved. For my daily patterns in Washington and in Portland, it works really well. But not so much for the daily patterns of other people.
We’ve been radiating [infrastructure] out from the center, but that has been somewhat situational. Some of the questions you’re hearing of late are about our north-south movement in the central city. Loss of auto parking gets some people’s backs up.
I’m hopeful that we’re going to continue on the development of the civic infrastructure. It was what prompted me to start the transportation class at Portland State in the first place.
Take Grand Avenue. Why do you think a cycle track wasn’t put in when the streetcar was?
It was not simple to get the streetcar there. People have huge investments in the road as it is. I think the people who are advocates, visionaries, need to be assessing where they’re going to have the most impact. I’ve long felt having another crossing — 7th street or something — would dramatically change the equation here in this general swath of land.
Back when I was in city council, I had proposed that one of the fallback provisions was not to move the freeway — which I thought we couldn’t afford — but the day when we could remove the freeway. I still think that if the big one comes and all of this liquifies and we have a vast landscape to reassess, alternative patterns in the central city may provide as much or more movement at less cost.
Part of what’s slowed the movement here is that it’s created a backlash. Not just here — it’s in other parts of the country. People have been able to play on some people’s concerns that they’re being left out. That they’re not being involved in the planning process. That their needs aren’t being addressed. And that’s fatal. Because it’s very easy in this country to stop something.
How do we fight the backlash?
The things we’ve been talking about. I want people to really appreciate where we are and how we got here, think about where we’re going and to recognize that we are all in this together. Which is why I want a signature event for everybody to be able to appreciate what it means. My personal goal is that it’s not a day, but it’s a weeklong celebration.
What about the need for local political champions?
“The last era had far more champions and key participants than is recognized. There are 300 or 400 all-stars that were there in the neighborhoods.”
— Blumenauer on 1970s activism
The last era [the 1970s] had far more champions and key participants than is recognized. Somebody will talk about a governor or mayor or whatever. All of these were part of an effort in this community for people to take back the city from Robert Moses. Whether it was the League of Women Voters coming in as a lonely voice to the City Council or whether it was early bike advocates or trolley jollies — I would venture there are 300 or 400 all-stars that were there in the neighborhoods.
This is as big a concern as any that I have: We may not have the breadth of the citizen engagement. Is it Bowling Alone? Are we too quick to be on blogs that reinforce our biases? There are a lot of people who have the luxury of celebrating success. I see people in coffee shops all over the city after their weekend ride or people at those vinyards that were going to be plowed under. We were going to have farmettes and subdivisions! They’re wine country now!
[The amount of civic engagement] is different. And I’m doing a lot of processing on that — just understanding what happened and how we can help. The broader the conversation, I think the better off we’re going to be.
Qs & As edited.
Earl has supported the future Red Electric Trail along with SW Trails.
And helped nudge Union Pacific Railroad to an alternate alignment through the Albina Yards to connect the Esplanade to Swan Island.Rep Blumenauer may have a hand on the tiller but the power to propel these dreams to reality still needs to come from us and our City.
People have been able to play on some people’s concerns that they’re being left out. That they’re not being involved in the planning process. That their needs aren’t being addressed. And that’s fatal. Because it’s very easy in this country to stop something.
This is why we need data showing that parking removal and road diets are not the inconvenience some believe them to be.
Well until data comes along, one can at least direct people to the recent article by Anthony Foxx endorsing road diets: http://www.dot.gov/fastlane/diet-can-save-lives
Unfortunately, people are not rational beings, and politics rarely responds to “data.” You can dream, though.
I want to help shape policy but have no idea where to start and feel like my voice is not heard. City Hall seems unwilling to listen.
My advice is to become involved with the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committees at your city and county level, including neighboring cities (within your county)… or maybe these guys? http://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/HWY/BIKEPED/Pages/obpac.aspx.
Start by finding out when and where the meetings are and attending them as concerned public. Scour through the web sites of your local government for issues and opportunities (particularly new re/development proposals – that’s where infrastructure gets changed). First get to know the players – and their personalities – on your committees and your council (and even police force). Introduce yourself, offer up your contact information, and ask for contact info from chair-people and staff reps. Don’t start out as a squeaky wheel though; it takes time for the true influencers to become familiar with you by face and name, and patience to remain silent in the beginning on issues you might feel strongly about – recognize that these committees are a box that get checked for some people (staff, particularly), but on the whole people want to ‘do the right thing.’ Be prepared to do LOTS of listening and note-taking and VERY little talking (and just enough caffeine to balance both outcomes).
In my experience you have little power to shape policy unless you can 1) build recognition first and then respect, 2) recognize and remain silent when you’re in a powerless situation, no matter how passionate about the particular subject, and 3) search for problems with practical solutions and propose them diplomatically. Don’t be afraid to – actually look for opportunities to – set others up for success based on your ideas (especially city staff). Build a network of experts (i.e. Alta, BTA, etc.) and recognize that you aren’t one – look for opportunities to refer them, keep in touch with them, and ask for education and advice from them on key topics.
I started showing up at local BPAC meetings here in 2009 when I moved to silicon valley, and last year I was asked to run for a vacant seat on my city BPAC and won one of two seats in a field of seven candidates. This year we had one vacancy and five candidates, and the least votes went to the folks who only recently started showing up. It just takes time.
I helped us get renewed at bronze level, single-handedly got a far-to-right bike lane replaced with a RTOL with through-lane for bikes at one dangerous intersection (working on a second in a different city), and played a small role in getting our city to negotiate purchase of a legacy deed that creates a (dangerous) 1-block disconnect in an important bike lane (it’s a primary connection to the new Apple campus – I’m told the city’s actually close to a deal!). There’s also one battle I’m particularly passionate about, but I fear it’s a losing proposition and it’s starting to get too political for my taste (read: potential lawsuit) – be cautious of alienating your allies. My point isn’t to toot my horn here, but that it’s taken time, effort, and patience (and lots of silence – which I think y’all know is hard for me!) to build enough familiarity for my ideas to be listened to – imagine this times several decades for Earl!!
Thanks Michael for this interview (Earl’s a huge inspiration to me, as is the late Jim Oberstar). Best of luck Adam – I highly encourage you (and others) to give it a whirl!
That gets my vote for POTW; great advice. Portland has a Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC); I’m sure BTA has that info. There are also neighborhood associations and groups like BikeWalkVote and others. I can’t imagine having enough time to get involved with more than a fraction of the possible ways into bike/ped advocacy. Here’s another touchstone:
Link to City of Portland Bicycle Advisory Committee page:
“The thirteen-member volunteer Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) meets monthly to review projects of interest to cyclists and discuss bike issues. The committee advises City Council and bureaus on all bicycle-related matters.
The BAC meets at 6 p.m. on the second Tuesday of every month. Meetings are held in the Lovejoy Room in City Hall at 1221 SW 4th Avenue.”
For more information about the BAC, you can e-mail Roger Geller (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Thanks! Exactly the right page.
For a very different approach, but in my view just as important and effective in the overall milieu, check out shift2bikes.org, biketemple.org, bikeloudpdx.org, puddlecycle.com and other grassroots groups, and do the same kinds of networking and involvement that Pete and are describe for more formal groups.
this is exactly what i did when i hit portland in 2008. and show up at the public process meetings on various projects. and try to get involved with policy committees at BTA, though this became less open at a certain point than it was when i arrived.
obviously i cannot point to any result for which i would claim credit singlehandedly, but some of the configuration of the 50s bikeway, some of the accommodation for pedestrians on williams, and specifically the sharrows on the deck of the 12th avenue overcrossing are consistent with the input i was offering.
“there was no vision”
This is my biggest concern, and a frequent complaint of mine here. With the legacy we here in Portland and Oregon have, I don’t understand why we aren’t hearing anything remotely bold or visionary from PBOT (to pick just one entity)? It isn’t as if we were lacking for ideas, threats, or opportunities. So let’s have at it! I’d start with soren’s suggestion above: remove some onstreet car parking already! We need a precedent.
Nice interview, btw. Thanks.
Vision, you say?
40 years ago there was plenty of vision around these parts, as your link confirms. My lament was in reference to the present.
“When we cut the ribbon… it will be the first time in over half a century that there is no federal project in the pipeline.”
I’d be curious to know how Portland (and Oregon, generally) has made out during that timespan in terms of amount of money we’ve sent to the federal government and the amount they’ve sent back.
I’d also be curious to know what the modal breakdown of those federal expenditures has been. There’s little reason to look forward to an influx of active transit funds from the new Republican-held Congress, and it’ll be interesting to see how Portland’s local spending mix compares with how we’ve spent money from federal sources in the past.
If the state could just raise the gas tax and enable cities to levy an additional gas tax, we would be less dependent on the feds for funding.
Raising the gas tax is a double-edged sword. It all depends on what those in charge are willing to spend it on. If it is more CRCs, we’re definitely better off broke.
Cities can raise their own gas tax, there are a number around Oregon.
True, and tricky. Hood River proposed a ($.03/gallon) local gas tax which was fairly well supported in the city itself (where people tend to walk downtown, and/or buy gas in Portland before driving to their second homes) but hugely opposed in the county (where pickups and farm equipment are plentiful). I liken the gas tax issue to plastic bag bans though. People overwhelmingly oppose it (68% polled in Portland before they were banned) but then when it passes people just cope and it’s really no big deal. (The same held true for mandatory seatbelt laws when I was growing up – they were repealed by voters three times in Massachusetts before the insurance lobbies united and focused on the federal level).
Now is certainly the time to raise the federal gas tax to ease the FHWA Trust deficit, but that won’t help localities much, so when you see it pass with bi-partisan support next year don’t break out the champagne just yet. We still have to see how your VMT tax experiment will play out…
The problem is that the gas tax has not been raised in line with inflation. Since 1993, the last year the federal gas tax was increased, the Corps of Engineers’ construction cost index shows an increase of 70 percent. Meanwhile the Oregon gas tax has increased by only 25 percent (from 24 cents to 30 cents per gallon in 2011) and the federal tax increased by 0 percent.
To offset the rate of inflation, the federal tax should already be 31 cents per gallon and the Oregon tax should be 41 cents per gallon. More than likely, the federal gas tax will not be increased while the Repubs control Congress and the Oregon gas tax will be increased by only 5 or 6 cents (and that will probably be spread out over the next 3 to 5 years).
Oregon is way behind on gas tax increases. Even Washington’s state gas tax is 37.5 cents per gallon.
Cities ARE permitted to levy a local gas tax. In Oregon, there are currently 14 cities and two counties with gas taxes.
There was a temporary prohibition on new or increased local gas taxes that was implemented when Oregon’s state gas tax was increased in 2011. That prohibition expired in January 2014.
The impediments to enacting a local gas tax at the city level are the lack of backbone by local leaders and the threat of a repeal by voters.
Nor sure of the exact number. But all three of the west coast states contribute more to the fed than we get back. Statistically, and ironically the states that politically seem most resentful of the federal government usually are the states that get the most from the fed.
Pretty easy to search the exact amounts and state rankings.
the source is a bit questionable, and from 2011, Oregon looks pretty good:
I don’t think Portland really has a very progressive edge to it anymore. A lot of people have moved here in the last 10-15 years. You visit, think it’s such a cool place, it’s not at all like (town you’re visiting from), not realizing maybe that it’s been a lot of people before working towards progressive goals/ideas to make this city unique (or just trudging it out for years making ok what we think of now as the norm; bike commuting for one). Portland is just…cool. Or something. It’s ready to go and all for you. It’s cheapish. Low crime. Hip. Cozy. What’s there to work towards when it’s so appealing already that you moved your whole life here from California/Texas/the upper Midwest/PA-NY-MA, etc.? And maybe it’s no ones fault. How much better is the quality of life here over, I don’t know, Omaha? Buffalo? Atlanta? (nothing against those places, maybe they’re great. I really have no idea)
I could be way off but that’s my thinking sometimes anyway. Portland is sorta watered down.
Or people move here because the other places are too anti-liberal.
Not just Red State Conservative but actively ANTI-liberal as in “go back to Soviet Russia you pinko commie” hatred daily. Slurs, vandalism, property damage: the price of being different amongst a community of small minded b1gots.
I live in a conservative state amongst some people who are anti-liberal in the way you describe. I grew up here, and I lived in Portland on and off for years. Based on my experience and comments I read on other websites, I think your comment speaks of a very significant factor for many folks who move to Portland. But also based on my experience living in Portland specifically, I think Huey Lewis’ comment accurately describes at least some transplants.
I think your diagnosis is flawed and oversimplified. I know a number of transplants who are very active in bike and community advocacy (I am one of them). I also know a number of longtime or native Portlanders that are at least passively anti-bike – really anti-change of any kind.
I wonder if the following aren’t more salient factors than transplants:
-rise of two-worker households and the fragmentation of free time
-fracturing of public discourse (media) so people aren’t used to hearing opposing viewpoints and get rapidly frustrated when involved in activism at having to work with others who think differently
-availability of the Internet and very absorbing media distractions
I love it that I live in his district! Finally, a representative who represents my views. Florida was never like that….
I make a point of always voting for neither of the two main parties (can’t break up the two party system if you continue to support it)- Earl is my one exception.
For all of his “bikeyness” now, Earl was not always the champion when he was in City Hall. Worth remembering.
I can’t disagree more. Complaints from the public about what the traffic calming and bike groups were doing in the early 90’s that went to the Commissioner’s office died there. Staff was well insulated from such objections and had the full support of our commissioner. Since Earl, not so much.
Absolutely true. In no way is Earl late to the bikie-party; in fact, he sent out the invitations, baked the cake, and spiked the punch.
And hired the band…
Are you referring to his objecting to the BTA’s Rose Quarter lawsuit, or more than that? That’s one particularly important incident that probably merits more reporting.
I’m not hip to the particulars John R refers to but in general I agree it’s worth remembering a politician (or anyone) with the integrity to reevaluate issues as times change and better information is brought forward, rather than clinging to old, dogmatic positions.
What going to change the way city are laid out is training the next generation of city, state, planner there is a better way rather that just laying concrete down and let pass it on down the line, is to build city, town for movement in a given area. This will be the first step.
Blumenauer was all over place concerning the Eastbank I-5 Freeway in the early ’90s. Some of us have been around long enough to remember that Blumenhauer supported the construction of the Water Avenue ‘improvements’. Just ask Charlie Hales.
As I recall the vote was 3-2 to leave the eastbank freeway where it remains today; Earl was one of the three; that was in ’89, I think. The alternative moved it a short way east, freeing up some riverside land for a park. Removing it all together was not on the table.
I also remember doing some battle as Transportation Committee chair of NWDA with Earl’s Transportation Bureau over the sidewalk widths and turning radii at NW 23rd and Burnside in ’91; they wanted to make the intersection work for trucks and to leave out street trees along Burnside among other things. AIA Urban Design committee was a big help on that.
Maybe Earl’s biggest missed opportunity was his staying out of the CRC mess; no doubt some firm talk with the DOTs could have got them to focus on a true bridge replacement with 8 lanes instead of 10 lanes and miles of freeway and interchange expansion. (Mayor Adams talked them down from 12). That along with light rail and bike/ped right of way would have satisfied most critics…