Earl Blumenauer, Portland’s representative in Congress, gets credited with being one of the founding fathers of the movement for livable communities. He helped start the annual Rail~volution gathering nearly 20 years ago, and this morning he kicked off the conference, telling attendees about his effort to move Congress in a more “bikepartisan” direction – and what we all can do to make that happen.
Blumenauer said Rail~volution has gone from being about “good ideas” to being at the forefront of some of the most urgent public policy priorities of our time. “We have seen how sustainable, well-planned communities with balanced transportation choices can avoid being hollowed out shells in the aftermath of real estate bubbles,” he said.
With his ever-present bike label pin on, he sang the praises of the bicycle, “the most efficient form of urban transportation ever designed.” He joked that Portland’s livable urbanism is indirectly the culprit for its high unemployment rate as “young people continue to move here – without jobs” just because Portland is such a good place to live. (It also might have something to do, he admits, with the fact that Portland also has more breweries – not just per capita, but simply a greater number – than any other city in the world.) It’s this walkable urbanism that he credits with people’s willingness to “invest more in the broccoli they buy at the farmers’ market, or spend more to buy a book at the local bookstore than buying it online.”
Shifting from the city to the nation, he said it was exciting to watch the federal government adopt some of the vision and values for which he and the other Railvolutionaries in the room “have been crusading for most of this new century.” From the interagency collaboration on livability to TIGER grants and intercity rail funding, he’s feeling hopeful. (And that’s despite having a reauthorization of the transportation bill be more than year overdue.)
Still, frustration creeps in. He called the Senate “the hospice where good House bills go to die,” then backpedaled, saying “but a hospice is where they treat you nicely.”
Then there’s the Tea Partiers. Without naming them, Blumenauer talked about his “near-death-panel experience,” learning first-hand how the truth can get twisted if a distortion gets repeated enough. (He was the author of the provision in the health care bill that Sarah Palin ended up calling “death panels” – his idea being that families should understand “the circumstances they were facing as they approached the end of life of a loved one, and that they had the capacity to make sure that their wishes were honored.”)
But the biggest threat to the push for livability, he said, are the deficit hawks who say there’s no money to pay for a different way of building towns and cities. He agreed that the country faces financial problems but said:
Do not fall victim to the notion that we can’t afford to do it right. That is false. You know – and we need your help to drive the message – that we are already spending far more than we need to, to renew and rebuild this country. Americans don’t have to keep wasting more energy than anybody in the world. We don’t have to spend twice as much as developed countries for mediocre health results for too many people. We don’t have to spend billions of dollars protecting West Germany from the Soviet Union, when both countries disappeared 20 years ago.
In a familiar Blumenauer refrain, he challenged the federal government – as the largest landowner, landlord, and employer – to lead by example. He was pleased with the announcement that the military is trying to become “greener” for strategic purposes, and hopes those innovations continue.
He closed with a piece of bible verse — Isaiah 58:12:
Those who are among you shall build up the old waste places. You shall rise up the foundations of many generations. You will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell.”