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Earl Blumenauer

Rep. Earl Blumenauer: Dems Will Fix Trump’s ‘Incoherent’ Transit Policy if They Re-take the House

A mural celebrates Phoenix’s plans to extend light rail into South Central. Photo: Valley Metro

Theres a great deal of uncertainty facing transit in the U.S. right now, with a hostile administration presiding over Washington and dark-money transit foes such as the Koch brothers launching attacks at the local level.

Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a former public works director for Portland, is founder and co-chair of the Congressional Bike Caucus, which, surprise, has about 130 members.  He wears a bike pin on his lapel wherever he goes. This week, he's at the Railvolution conference in Pittsburgh, meeting with advocates and strategizing for how to improve federal policy.

Here's what the Portland Democrat had to say about sustainable transportation in Trump era:

In your opening address, you mentioned the Koch brothers' anti-transit, pro-driving campaigns in Nashville and California. What's going on? 

It's part of a concerted effort to dramatically reduce the scope and sweep for federal policy and programs. You saw that in their little Tennessee adventure. [Editor's note: Koch-backed groups defeated a $5-billion light rail transit expansion package in Nashville.]

The opposition to some of this work has evolved.

When we first started, the first rail line I worked on was 30 years ago ... we'd see opposition that was sort of fringe, libertarian, local think tanks. But more recently, they're more sophisticated, more money, trying to really do some Astroturf activity and advocates need to be on their toes.

Why is the Federal Transit Administration starving transit projects of funds?

We go through this periodically. We had challenges during the Reagan Administration, where it was pretty blatant. It was cheaper to study than to fund. So we got all sorts of process thrown at us. We have people in positions of authority that will not be sympathetic to the modes.

Part of the problem at FTA [is] Secretary [Elaine] Chao. You know, I've listened to a couple of Elaine's presentations and they are just incoherent. There's no sense of how the pieces fit together. This administration has, in a variety of positions, put in people who are more ideological. And there isn't anybody driving a vision of infrastructure and community development.

This stuff is not partisan. It ought to be embraced. Part of what might save us is their own dysfunction.

Do you think if the Democrats take Congress, you might be able to force FTA to start releasing these funds more effectively?

If the Democrats assume control, there are a number of things that will happen. Number one is that there is a possibility of actually generating money and not add to the deficit to fund infrastructure. Right now the administration has no program for that.

The Republicans have been in charge of our Ways and Means Committee for almost eight years. In that eight years, they have had 404 hearings and subcommittee hearings. They gave us one witness for five minutes.

For a gas tax increase or a per-mile...

For anything. In those eight years, 30 states have worked out, almost without exception, bipartisan solutions. Congress hasn't even considered that.

The future requires more money. The future is going to require a different mechanism to collect it. I've introduced legislation with support from business and labor and a variety of organizations to increase the gas tax, index the gas tax [to inflation] and then replace the gas tax with something that is sustainable, which would be a road user charge. Within 10 years we're going to be there.

We talk about the advent of autonomous vehicles. They will all be electric.


They will. They will pay no gas tax. You're going to watch the collapse of the funding model. Autonomous vehicles also are not going to be running as many red lights. There won't be as many speeding tickets. There'll be less parking revenue.

This change that will be taking place in the next decade will demand alternatives. And we're ready to move on it.

And for the money that's already approved, but not being allocated by the Federal Transit Administration ...?

If Democrats win control, the committees will start to work again. The committees — [Rep] Peter DeFazio in [the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee], what we will do in Ways and Means — we're able to set the community agenda. We're able to subpoena witnesses.

So potentially FTA employees?

It will be a much different dynamic. And you've seen Congress has pushed back at some of the more bizarre things that the Trump Administration's been talking about. Zeroing out TIGER grants... um, no. They're subverting the purpose of the TIGER grants, but still, there's an opportunity to showcase things that America needs and wants. And I think that's very powerful.

We'll be able to get some things passed in the House.

There is more bipartisan support for rational transportation policy, if we have a chance to showcase and call to question.

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