As the Republican party takes over our federal government, U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer feels like all hope for his transportation and livability agenda is not lost. Reached via phone from his D.C. office yesterday Portland’s popular representative referred to the election results as “personally appalling” and “grim news for the presidency.”
But despite major losses for Democrats, Blumenauer, who won over 73 percent of the vote in Oregon’s 3rd congressional district on Tuesday, is optimistic about the future of “livable communities” — a set of issues and policies he’s built a legacy on during 20 years in office.
In an interview yesterday I asked Blumenauer for his thoughts on the election, whether he’ll work with the Trump administration on a new transportation funding bill, and more. The questions and answers below have been edited for clarity.
What’s your response to what happened last Tuesday? Any silver linings?
Let’s call them copper linings. As for the confused national election picture, it’s something that people are going to be questioning for months. I personally was appalled, because it wasn’t just about a Republican versus a Democrat, or your favorite candidate not winning. I was appalled by the tenor of the campaign and what Trump represented on many diferent levels. There’s something deeper going on here. Things that are very important to sort out in terms of how the country goes forward.
One thing that’s clear to me is that if we can connect with people on things that matter to them and we can engage activists and adovcates, than people can be persuaded to support the things we care about.
On that note, you mentioned in an email to me earlier this week you were very happy about the success of marijuana and transit initiatives nationwide. What can people who support better biking learn from those successes?
(Note: The nonprofit People for Bikes estimates about $4.7 billion in cycling infrastructure funding out of about $200 billion in transit investments nationwide.)
I am ecstatic about what has happened in the area of transit around the country. These proposals were mostly transit, not just some transit stuffed into a larger proposal, and they included biking and walking. Of the $200 billion, it’s about $170 billion for transit. 33 of 49 state and local public transit measures passed — that’s a pretty good batting record. When you look at the margins of victory these proposals got an average of 60 percent. There’s broad demonstrated support for things that matter.
“If four years from now the places that can make the most advantage of transportation investments don’t get that help, that’s going to be not just a missed opportunity in terms of safety and economic benefits of transportation — it’s going to be a lost political opportunity as well.”
I also think the marijuana legislation is interesting. Those propsoals passed in eight of nine states they were on the ballot. There was pretty significant opposition to them from some of the forces that have supported Trump and the Republican takeover of Congress, like the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson [a casino magnate], who put big money into them, and somehow the fact that the majority of the public saw through that and supported the measures anyways, I found very encouraging.
And in Oklahoma, a state that gave Trump over 70 percent of the vote, people voted for animal welfare over the farm bureau on a so-called Freedom to Farm bill that would have gutted environmental protections and animal welfare protections. It was voted down 60-40.
This is a movement that has been driven almost entirely by people, not politicians. There’s an amazing power that can be harnessed when citizens decide they’re going to take control of an issue. It’s like marriage equality. That was not driven by politicians, it was fueled by citizens. All of these things don’t get on the Sunday morning talk shows but they are things that matter to people and where people can take steps to make a difference. In some cases they cost money but people are willing to spend money for livability.
I look at these results to be every bit as significant as what happened with the Trump phenomenon… When I look at these other areas where there are broad coalitions that will take simple, defined steps to meeting objectives that promote livability, I’m encouraged. And I think that’s something that ought to give heart to the people in the trenches who want safe streets, who want to be able to promote walking and biking, who want balanced transportation systems.
The Trump phenomenon notwithstanding, these issues resonate with people. They will listen to thoughtful campaigns, they will vote for change and even to tax themselves. That’s the focus we need to have going forward: to make that type of connection and make it resonate in ways people understand. To not be intimidated by the politcal climate, but be willing to step forward with things that will make a difference.
Assuming there’s less support for non-motorized transportation at the national level, how can we push back at the local level to shape federal policies?
If we play our cards right what happens at the state and local level cannot only make a difference at the local level but it can help inform and shape federal policy.
“It’s hard to really fully understand what Trump is talking about with his infrastructure plan. You kind of get the feeling that, like his campaign, he’s kind of making this stuff up on the fly.”
It’s hard to really fully understand what Trump is talking about with his infrastructure plan. Sometimes he’s said he’ll just add it to the national debt. There appears to be a bias toward public-private partnerships. But you kind of get the feeling that, like his campaign, he’s kind of making this stuff up on the fly. People in the industry don’t have a good fix on what exactly he’s talking about. And there are competing plans back here [in D.C.]. People have for years talked about reforming transportation by changing the tax system and funding it that way, or repatriating funds from overseas. Obama himself has recommended it should be part of tax reform. I’ve been skeptical of that because these are gimmicks that take us away from user-pays and makes the funding subject to the vagaries of the federal funding cycle — not good if you’re trying to undertake important, long-term infrastructure investments that need predictability.
I continue to think we could get back to that user-pays space. Eight red Republican states raised the gas tax in 2016. My vehicle-miles-traveled [VMT] legislation has been supported by truckers, AAA, the Chamber of Commerce, the broadest coalition of support for any piece of legislation in congress. We want to raise the gas tax, index the gas tax, then replace the gas tax with a VMT fee/road user charge. That road user charge is embedded now in the FAST Act [existing federal transportation law], we have eight pilot projects underway, and there’s funding available for the next four years to continue that work. Ultimately a road user fee is going to be the most sustainable, fairest and effective way going forward. Taxes on gallons of fuel consumed — like the white male voters with less than a college education who voted for Trump — are in decline.
We have a chance to continue this work on the state and local level and use that leverge to encourage congress to do its job. We’re going to continue to agitate and organize and keep that coalition alive and have people focus on what they want. We’ve seen for years now proposals that aren’t tied to dedicated, predicatable revenue sources collapse under their own weight. There are too many competing interests. I don’t mean to put a happy face on this — I think we were positioned to be able to make some real progress with Clinton and a better congress. The congress is not what I’d hoped and the Trump administration is a black box with a question mark and lots of competing signals. Some people who are a little unnerving are associated with it. But the facts don’t change. We have a massive infrastructure deficit, we have the capacity to pay for it, and as proven with initiatives at the state and local levels, there is public will to get it done.
What do you think about the rumors that John Mica could get the Transportation Secretary job?
John Mica is talking about being transportation secretary. I’ve had a fair number of conversations with insiders and non-partisans, and you know, the only time Mica’s name has come up is when somebody is wondering why he’s saying he’s in the running for that job. Who knows? But it is very much a question mark.
Will you work with the Trump administration if/when a transportation funding bill comes up?
I will support additional resources for rebuilding and renewing America. My enthusiasm declines rapidly if it is going to be as series of disconnected, sub-optimal projects. As we know, investing in transit and bike/ped facilities, trying to maintain a state of good repair — these create more jobs than simply building another freeway mile. We’re also in a situation in most of America where we can’t even pay for what we’ve got, so attention should be paid to preserve and enhance existing facilities. And we should prioritize things that are going to promote mobility. There are some potential road projects under consideration that really do solve congestion, and aren’t just extra capacity. Prioritize things that will keep people safe and promote mobility and have the most economic impact. It would be ideal to dust off the Recovery Act and TIGER grants. Those were the most popular projects and programs in history. There were hundreds of applications, tremendous impact, they leveraged funds. And doing something like that would make sure that the people at the state and local level did their job so federal money was maximized and less likely that we end up with sub-optimal projects.
I don’t know where they are with their thinking process if the plan goes through the filter of his political support, which is to say rural and small-town America, that’s not where congestion is and where it’s not safe to bike and they don’t have transit access. If all you do is pour concrete — where the problem is access to transit and safety — that will be a lost opportunity. And the metro areas are where federal dollars will promote movement of freight and have more economic impact and cut down on carbon pollution. A failure to address this properly is not only going to be a short-term problem for the country it will erode potential political support and it will set in motion some interesting political dynamics. If four years from now the places that can make the most advantage of transportation investments don’t get that help, that’s going to be not just a missed opportunity in terms of safety and economic benefits of transportation — it’s going to be a lost political opportunity as well.
Look at Houston: When I started in this business, Houston was a Republican bastion, had second highest per capita fuel consumption, sprawl, no zoning laws. In the last five years Houston has opened three light rail lines and they’re looking hard at downtown housing. In 2012 I was campaigning with their mayor (a lesbian Democrat) for a $200 million bond for cycling infrastructure which passed overwhelmingly. And interestingly Houston is all Democrats now. So this is something that has direct quality of life implications and political implications. I don’t want Donald Trump to fail because America fails; but I have no interest in being a cheerleader for something that isn’t going to do what we need done. And it doesn’t have to be this hard. The coalition is there, or can be easily developed.
Do you feel like that coalition has fractured at all because of the election?
I think there are people who are concerned and who will make their own calculations if they get on board. But I think people recognize this is something that shouldn’t be political. This is something that should be driven by data, by numbers, by what the public wants, and what works. And the places that are growing and vibrant in this country are the places that are investing in balanced infrastructure and frankly, tilted toward bicycling, pedestrian and transit. That’s where the milennials are going, that’s where housing values are rising because people want to live there.
You mention data and numbers, but this is a post-fact environment now. How does that change the biking pitch?
I don’t think there needs to be a radically different approach. I think what we have seen around the country, support for bikes, pedestrian and transit has taken hold. It gets traction because it touches people where they live, because there are proven solutions, because failing to take a balanced approach doesn’t work. I think strengthening the coalitions, continuing to make progress at the state and local level is important and I think this is a movement that is about to crest.
This isn’t radical, wild-eyed stuff. It really is something that is not partisan. It is just as powerful in rust belt communities as in the blue coasts and I think people just need to think about what’s different, think about the new players, and deal with cards we were dealt. But we’re on the right track here, we’re operating from a position of strength being demonstrated in communities large and small. We need to not be afraid to work to get there.
I believe this is part of what is going to help America move forward in the next four years. This is something where we can get progress while we sort out the stuff on the national level. I think there’s increasing political muscle behind this agenda. If I were Donald Trump’s advisor, I’d say, ‘Look outside Trump Tower and look at the positive aspects of what’s happening on the streets.’
Will you work with Trump, or actively oppose him?
I have no intention of being involved with anything I think moves us backwards. I will fight with things that undercut our core values, our principles, or our progress. I find some of the people he’s bringing in, my lord, it’s appalling. The fact is there will be legislation moving forward in this congress and there’s although there’s a Trump administration it may or may not be Trump’s legislation… I think congress is going to do things on infrastructure and I’m going to try to make whatever congress does be as good as it can be. There are areas where you don’t give an inch and areas where you fight back. There will be lots of things to oppose this administration about. The problem will be where you concentrate your time and energy.
We’ve told our readers that the stakes have never been higher for the National Bike Summit this year. Do you agree? Will you attend?
I will be there if it’s humanly possible. As I mentioned this is a time when there are lots of moving pieces, but what we have done in this space over the course of the last 15 years is pretty remarkable. Cities are being transformed. I look at where we’ve come from, through administrations of Clinton, Bush, Obama — it’s been roller coast ride but we’ve seen progress in the cycling sector continously. And it’s important to keep that momentum going. I hope there will be a big turnout at the Summit.
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – firstname.lastname@example.org