E-bikes a better way to help people than cheaper gas, says Oregon Congressman Blumenauer

Rep. Blumenauer at the launch of Portland’s Biketown bike share program in 2016. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“I don’t want to sound like ‘Johnny-one-note’ with our cycling agenda, but burning calories instead of fossil fuel is something that will make a difference right now.”

-Earl Blumenauer

Thanks to inflation and the war in Ukraine, gas prices have hit record highs, and in the car-dependent United States, a lot of people across the political spectrum are unhappy.

But instead of using this as a wake-up call to shift toward low-car transportation and loosen the Americans’ grip on their steering wheels, many local and national officials have proposed band-aid policies to make gas cheaper. Recently, President Joe Biden announced a proposal to temporarily lift the federal gas tax – about 18 cents per gallon for regular gasoline – to lighten the financial burden for Americans who drive petrol-powered cars.

But this idea has not been very well-received. Critics say it’s a political gimmick at best. At worst, it’s outright climate arson to continue encouraging people to drive gas vehicles.

One of these detractors has been Earl Blumenauer, the U.S. Representative from Oregon who represents most of Portland east of the Willamette River. In a June 16th letter to Biden, Blumenauer urged the President to seek alternate solutions.

“While there is undoubtedly a need to provide American consumers relief from spiking costs, there is no guarantee a gas tax suspension would reduce prices at the pump or stem the broader inflation affecting the global economy, and it may only increase oil companies’ bottom lines,” Blumenauer wrote. “Suspending the federal gas tax would not lower prices for consumers, and would not have the desired political effect; it also would seriously damage important policy opportunities, and should be rejected by your administration.”

I spoke with the Congressman on the phone Monday morning and asked him to elaborate on what he thinks about the future of transportation policy given the political temperature in D.C. and the bipartisan fixation on ‘pain at the pump.’ One thing Blumenauer (who is the co-chair of the informal U.S. Congressional Bike Caucus, by the way) thinks would help? Bikes.

“One of the things we routinely emphasize is there are things we can do that would cost a fraction of this and would actually help people,” Blumenauer told me. “I don’t want to sound like ‘Johnny-one-note’ with our cycling agenda, but burning calories instead of fossil fuel is something that will make a difference right now.”

For the last year and a half, Blumenauer has been trying to use infrastructure talks to propel bike legislation, specifically with a bill to make electric bikes more affordable as a way to reduce car dependency.

“Electric bikes can transform even nominal cyclists into bike commuters. It really makes a difference.”

“Electric bikes can transform even nominal cyclists into bike commuters,” Blumenauer says. (We concur.) “It really makes a difference.”

One particularly troublesome element of the gas rebate discussion is how it ignores the fact that many lower-income Americans don’t drive cars. They need better active and public transportation infrastructure, not prepaid gas credit cards. Blumenauer agrees these people have been left out.

“Low income people and people of color are heavily transit-dependent. But [gas tax holiday proposals indicate] we shouldn’t be as concerned with them as we are with the suburban single-occupant vehicle commuter. It’s not rational, and it’s not fair,” he says. “It’s been really frustrating they don’t get the they don’t get the same attention.”

At this point, it seems unlikely Biden will be able to shore up support for a federal gas tax holiday. But several state governments, including in states with liberal governors, are going for it. And just the fact that it’s on Biden’s radar at all is cause for concern.

Even with these disappointing trends, however, Blumenauer appears hopeful for progress in the future. While bold transportation infrastructure investment may seem like a lost cause should Democrats lose control of Congress in the fall, Blumenauer says he still trusts Biden’s administration and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to make moves.

“Working with federal, state and local agencies, we can have a profound influence, regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections,” he says.

Blumenauer points out the transportation provisions in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed last year, acknowledging it’s only a “modest breakthrough” (advocates say it may actually increase carbon emissions) but that some of its funding will help fund active transportation projects across the country. He also says he is seeing a cultural paradigm shift against freeway expansions, including in very car-centric communities like Phoenix and Los Angeles. (Check out the Freeway Fighters Network map to see other places – including Portland – where this battle is playing out.)

Blumenauer says he sees Portland projects like the 82nd Avenue jurisdictional transfer, the plan to expand the Streetcar to the Northwest Industrial District and the upcoming bike and pedestrian bridge with his namesake as indicative of progress here that could be replicated elsewhere. And he says he and the ‘bike constituency’ (which includes other active transportation activists) aren’t going anywhere.

“Communities all over the country are struggling with the same challenges. A more diverse set of low-carbon transportation alternatives – with less reliance on single-occupant vehicles and more on bikes, pedestrian and transit – is key to success,” Blumenauer says. “We’re in it for the long haul.”

U.S. House-approved ‘INVEST in America Act’ includes $18 million for Portland road projects

U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer on 82nd Avenue, Friday July 9th, 2021.
(Photo: City of Portland)

U.S. Congressman and former Portland city commissioner Earl Blumenauer took a walk on Southeast 82nd Avenue on Friday to highlight a $5 million federal investment into the beleaguered road. The visit came a week after Blumenauer and his colleagues in the House of Representatives voted 221 to 201 to pass the INVEST in America Act, a bill that would inject $715 billion into transportation infrastructure nationwide.

The $5 million earmarked for 82nd comes amid unprecedented momentum for the state highway (OR 213) to finally be transferred into local hands after years of advocacy from safe streets activists and elected officials who are fed up with the State of Oregon’s management style. After years of pushing for the transfer, two more deaths on the street back in April pushed the issue to the front-burner. State lawmakers then teamed up with the City of Portland and Oregon Department of Transportation to hammer out a “historic” agreement that would allow the transfer to take place — but only if all the parties cough up the requisite funds — totalling nearly $200 million — to bring the road up to a state of good repair.

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Congressman Earl Blumenauer bullish on transportation under Biden

Congressional colleagues Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Earl Blumenauer at a digital town hall event last month.

After Trump won in 2016, Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer told us he was both appalled yet assured. He said the presidential election was “grim” but that wins for transit and other issues he cares about gave him hope. At the 2017 National Bike Summit just three months after Trump moved into the White House, Blumenauer said cycling might be one way for America to heal its divisions.

Fast forward to 2020 and a Democrat is headed back to the White House. I spoke with Blumenauer on the phone this morning to hear his perspective on the last four years and what might lie ahead. I’ve edited our conversation below for clarity and brevity.

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Biden, Blumenauer, and bikes

President-elect Joe Biden.
(Photo: Biden Harris Transition)

Even without official acknowledgement by the Trump Administration, President-elect Joe Biden is already moving towards the White House. Fresh off declarations of his win finally coming on Friday, he and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have begun their transition process in earnest.

In our little corner of the internet, the buzz is about who Biden will pick to lead the U.S. Department of Transportation and what transportation policy might look like in the next four years.

The buzz is especially intense in Portland because one of the names being floated as possible DOT pick is Congressman Earl Blumenauer, the former Portland city commissioner who’s represented the best cycling city in America for the past 24 years. On Saturday, Politico included Blumenauer as the most likely pick after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who most people see as the frontrunner.

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Blumenauer’s bike-related bills move forward in $1.5 trillion House transportation bill

The bill would change U.S. law so that transit agencies can more easily fund bikeshare systems.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

When we interviewed U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election he said, “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.”

Yesterday, just four months before that four-year deadline, Rep. Blumenauer and his colleagues in the House of Representatives (led by fellow Oregon congressman Peter DeFazio) seized that political opportunity and successfully passed H.R. 2, the Moving Forward Act.

The bill invests $1.5 trillion in infrastructure projects and programs including $500 billion for transportation-related needs. The League of American Bicyclists has heaped praise on the legislation, saying, “This bill is transformative – it’s the first bill to approach real reform in almost 30 years… and will move the country forward in building a safer, cleaner, more equitable transportation system that better meets the needs of everyone.”

Among the highlights are several of Blumenauer’s top priorities that he’s been pushing for years including a stronger tax benefit for people who ride a bicycle to work, a policy tweak that would allow transit agencies to invest in bikeshare systems, and funding for Vision Zero plans. Blumenauer introduced a total of nine bills that were included in the Moving Forward Act and five of them are related to transportation:

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