In pep talk for regional leaders, Blumenauer lays out ‘amazingly good’ federal funding opportunity

“What we don’t need is to be involved with a kind of navel gazing and being distracted by one or two things.”
— Earl Blumenauer, U.S. House of Representatives

Blumenauer at virtual JPACT meeting Thursday, January 20th.

There’s a lot of excitement and optimism about President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) swirling around Portland transportation circles these days. Advocates are prepping lobby efforts to get what they want, electeds are eager to “bring home the bacon” and use the funds to cement legacies, and agency staffers are busy setting up public processes to garner feedback for how it should be spent.

For Portland’s most high-profile transportation infrastructure advocate, U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, the $567 billion is a “once in a generation opportunity” for our region. That’s how he framed the IIJA during remarks at the outset of Metro’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT) last Thursday. The influential committee is made up of 17 officials including Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and mayors and agency leaders from across the region.

Given Blumenauer’s stature and tenure (the 73 year-old has served 26 years in Congress and has held elected office since 1979), as I listened to his comments at JPACT it was like hearing a coach give his players a pep talk to inspire a big win on the playing field.

In this case, the game is to bring as much money home from the IIJA as possible.

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Even though the bill that passed wasn’t exactly what Blumenauer and Oregon’s other influential infrastructure champion, Congressman Peter DeFazio, wanted, Blumenauer said it’s “amazingly good”.

“There’s a lot here. There’s a lot of discretion on the part of the federal government that is leaning in our direction,” he continued. “And for the first time, in decades, we actually have an administration that is willing to invest in infrastructure. This is truly a once in a generation opportunity.”

For Blumenauer, the IIJA isn’t just about a dollar amount that could come to Oregon, it’s about how the stars have aligned to make Oregon especially ripe to win a large share of the $100 billion available in discretionary grant programs. The way he sees it, the Portland region is ready to win those funds for three key reasons.

First, he sees a leadership team at the US Department of Transportation who share the values and visions of most Portland leaders. Blumenauer said the Biden administration is “simpatico with many of our priorities around equity and safety.” He pointed specifically to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who he called a “gifted communicator” (and ODOT finance director called Oregon’s “new best friend”) and someone who intimately understands the principles of smart transportation policy because he’s seen them in action on international study tours.

A “dream team” for Oregon? L to R: Peter DeFazio (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland), Pete Buttigieg (Photo: USDOT), Earl Blumenauer (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland), Maurice Henderson (Photo: USDOT), Irene Marion (Photo: USDOT), Polly Trottenberg (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland).

And Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg (“who actually runs most of the operation,” Blumenauer noted), understands Portland’s needs not only because she sat down for an interview with us during a visit back in 2011, but because she was New York City’s transportation chief while they built miles of protected bike lanes and bus-only lanes.

Blumenauer also mentioned the USDOT’s other “relationships” with our region. That was likely a reference to the two former Portland Bureau of Transportation staffers who now work for Sec. Buttigieg. Maurice Henderson, a former PBOT assistant director, is now a senior advisor to Buttigieg; and Irene Marion, PBOT’s former equity and inclusion manager, is now USDOT Departmental Office of Civil Rights director.

“So it is in many respects a dream team for us,” Blumenauer said.

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Another reason Blumenauer thinks the Portland region has a leg-up on the competition is because we already completed a lot of the project identification and prioritization required to make an effective federal pitch during the run-up to Metro’s “Get Moving” 2020 transportation funding ballot measure.

The final feather in our region’s hat, according to Blumenauer is that Rep. Peter DeFazio is still on the team. Even though he announced his retirement last month, DeFazio is still chair of the powerful House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee for 11 more months. “[DeFazio] continues to be perhaps the most respected person in Congress, in either party in either chamber, dealing with infrastructure,” Blumenauer pointed out. “And he has an opportunity to help us in terms of guidance.”

And the clock is ticking. If regional leaders don’t come together soon, this golden opportunity could pass us by.

“What we don’t need is to be involved with a kind of navel gazing and being distracted by one or two things,” Blumenauer warned his team on Thursday. “[This opportunity] requires discipline. It requires focus. It requires compromise, and strategic thinking… the next two or three months, they’re going to be critical for us getting the most out of this.”

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Mike Quigley
Mike Quigley
10 months ago

Dems need to move fast and Oregon must spend the money fast. Repubs said they would block it all if they take back Congress later this year, which appears likely.

Jeff
Jeff
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike Quigley

No they didn’t – it passed with what these days is bipartisan support. You can’t rescind it.

J_R
J_R
10 months ago

Discipline; focus; compromise; strategic thinking. Not very likely in Portland.
Clearly, Blumenauer knows Portland since he specifically warned against navel gazing.
Just another lost opportunity, unfortunately.

SolarEclipse
SolarEclipse
10 months ago

Since Oregon (mostly Portland) can’t make hard decisions without forming multiple consensus building committees I’m doubtful anything will get done. It’s too bad, I’d be happy if a project would make 51% of the folks happy, at least it would get something done.
But then again, transportation funding means a big payout to the construction industry, they’ll be pushing very hard for that pay day.
Gosh, I’ve been in Portland way too long . . . sigh.

Cory P
Cory P
10 months ago

Could this fund the SW Max line?

ivan
ivan
10 months ago
Reply to  Cory P

Could this fund a Lombard/Killingsworth/Sandy Max from St. Johns to Troutdale?

(SW neighborhoods deserve better transit, but that Barbur line proposal was terrible.)

Fred
Fred
10 months ago
Reply to  ivan

Speak for yourself, ivan. I was looking forward to using the MAX on Barbur. Oh – I guess you were speaking for yourself since you want a MAX line in your part of Portland. Same for me in SW.

ivan
ivan
10 months ago
Reply to  Fred

I live in SE. Neither Max line would benefit me, unless I happened to be going to those parts of town.

The Barbur line would have been fine — and I voted for its funding — but it fundamentally served a much lower-density set of neighborhoods, and was oriented towards moving people from suburbs into Portland rather than moving people around Portland. (Like 95% of TriMet’s lines, Max and bus both, it presumed downtown destinations; there are in particular a dearth of crosstown lines in any mode.)

In a perfect world, of course, we’d have both a SW Max line and a Columbia River-paralleling Max line (along with a few others!)

But St. Johns, Cully, and other northern neighborhoods have been underserved by transit for decades. If I had to prioritize I’d say the neighborhoods in North and upper Northeast Portland are in far more significant need of effective transit, and are also neighborhoods that have been systematically disinvested through racist housing and development policies over the course of Portland’s history. In the gap between the ideal and the actual, I’d move these neighborhoods to the front of the line for new transit lines.

OS
OS
10 months ago

Dream team, indeed! C’mon, Oregon transportation leaders!! Let’s do this!!!!

Andrew N
Andrew N
10 months ago

Does anyone know what Blumenauer’s position is on the RQ and CRC projects, especially in light of the likelihood that the infrastructure bill is going to increase emissions?

Philips
Philips
10 months ago

I used to be thrilled by the prospect of us getting hundreds of millions of dollars for local projects.

Now I just fear more waste and incompetence. Our government has failed to execute on every major issue they face. This is no different. Another failed MAX line to nowhere? A bloated freeway expansion benefiting a huge contractor and flotilla of consultants? How about a new MUP soon to be destroyed by camps and garbage? Sorry I am in a mood.

Rachel
Rachel
10 months ago
Reply to  Philips

Right there with you.

maxD
maxD
10 months ago

Could this $$ be used to relocate the Brooklyn and North Portland rail yards to Washington?

HEC
HEC
10 months ago
Reply to  maxD

I could think of of other things I would prefer to relocate.

FDUP
FDUP
10 months ago

Pretty optimistic, don’t you think? IMO, no one will agree on anything and the opportunity will be lost.

HEC
HEC
10 months ago

The pork is coming. Got to get our piece of the meat.

Chris I
Chris I
10 months ago
Reply to  HEC

Services provided in exchange for taxes paid?

Rachel
Rachel
10 months ago

Biking– along with trimet– has become a shit show in this city. Really not sure what Earl is on about here. I used to be a fan of his and he would come chat at my kid’s middle school prior to his teacher-friend retiring..but I see nothing to champion here with our lack of traffic safety enforcement, dangers caused by homeless encampments, horrible experimental street grids that are completely inconsistent, dangerous driving making biking a nightmare. How far we have fallen.

Jeff
Jeff
10 months ago
Reply to  Rachel

Earl has a very short list of accomplishments to show for his time in DC (which now is a very long time indeed). The money’s going to be spent somewhere and I’d prefer it be here too, but don’t have a lot of faith in either him or our local leaders.