Congressman Blumenauer Details Federal Climate Change, Transit, & Water Legislative Agenda
With health care reform finally off the legislative agenda in Washington D.C., attention has returned to the reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Bill and the climate change legislation currently in the Senate. With such momentous legislation on the congressional docket, VERDEXCHANGE News was pleased to speak with Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), who, as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, has been advancing a progressive agenda that includes public transit, livable neighborhoods, and support for California’s AB 32 and Los Angeles’ “30/10” plan for Measure R funds.
Rep. Blumenauer: The situation is complicated by hyper-partisanship, a crowded Senate agenda, and, most recently, the Supreme Court vacancy. Even Wall Street reform has shifted the timeline. The House has made significant progress by passing a climate bill last year, but we still have the dual challenge of limited floor time in an election year, when people will be itching to spend more time at home, and this session’s unusual degree of partisanship. The most recent, but more limited Senate energy bill is nonetheless encouraging, since it creates a possibility for action. Even though some of us want something more comprehensive—such as the House legislation—I think the odds are better than 50 percent that something will be enacted this Congress. An energy bill, like health care, is a long-term process. We’ll be implementing health care reform for five years. Regardless of what energy legislation passes, we’ll be working to refine, expand, and improve our approach for years to come.
VerdeX: You’ve commented in a number of our most recent interviews that the economic recovery package and climate change legislation had put the U.S. on track for federal investment in infrastructure but that you’re a little frustrated that these investments are based on past patterns instead of new opportunities to renew, rebuild, and revitalize America. Can you elaborate, now that we’re into 2010, on the status of bringing to the recognition of Congress new patterns for such investment?
Rep. Blumenauer: The most obvious example of a new pattern to rebuild and renew America would be the reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Act. The House is developing pretty good legislation that promotes sustainability, streamlines the federal partnership, and provides a basis for extraordinarily significant progress. Recently there have been very encouraging signals from Senator Boxer, who will have a major role to play in the reauthorization as Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. She has been very supportive of the approach advanced in the House and is interested in moving legislation forward in the Senate.
However, reauthorization continues to be stymied by a lack of consensus about the best way to provide the resources. The Federal Highway Trust Fund is in deficit for the first time in history. It requires an infusion of general funds just to meet current needs, let alone providing the resources to implement a newer, comprehensive and more ambitious agenda. While this has yet to be resolved, I’m still hopeful. The House climate legislation included my proposal to provide resources to reduce the transportation sector’s carbon footprint. In terms of a comprehensive breakthrough, however, we’re not there yet. The Republicans continue to oppose any revenue increases, and, frankly, the Obama administration has been very reluctant to move past their initial opposition to general tax increases. We still have a long way to go.
VerdeX: You just met with a delegation from California that passed through Washington recently talking about the “30/10” plan to jumpstart transportation bond measures, looking at high speed rail, and the cluster of EVs that is expanding in Southern California. How do those meetings bear on the work that you are engaging?
Rep. Blumenauer: I am extraordinarily excited about the decision by voters in Southern California to make a $40 billion dollar investment in transit. It was an overwhelming vote in a tough economic climate that speaks to the vision and confidence of the people in Southern California, despite the state being in choppy waters. The opportunity to accelerate that program, to capitalize on the revenue to make it work faster, and to take advantage of historically low interest rates and a favorable bidding environment, is a golden opportunity.
On Capitol Hill, people were intrigued everywhere the delegation went. Whether the solution is credit enhancements, a federal subsidy, or perhaps a federal infrastructure bank—which we’re examining in the House Ways and Means Committee this month—there are many solutions for the 30/10 puzzle. I am committed to working with the Mayor Villaraigosa, various stakeholders, the transit authority, and your delegation to see if there is some way to break loose a little additional cash or some credit guarantees, as well as ways to coordinate the federal and state environmental processes. Southern California has environmental standards that are arguably stronger than the federal government’s. Why should you have to do this twice? I’m eager to work with you to see if there’s a way to avoid having to go through separate, time consuming, and expensive processes.
L.A.’s 30/10 Plan would be the perfect national model because it’s on such a grand scale. You have $40 billion in the pipeline. We need a new vision for rebuilding and renewing America, to squeeze more value out of the federal partnership. This effort offers an extraordinary opportunity to do just that.
VerdeX: You’ve mentioned often, as have others, that transportation historically was bipartisan rather than partisan. With Congressman Obey, the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, retiring, is the future likely to be as bipartisan as it has historically been?
Rep. Blumenauer: This is very much up in the air. Last fall, as we were working on the framework for the new transportation bill, we had to extend the expiring legislation until we had the votes to move the new bill forward. This is nothing new; during the Bush administration, the bill was extended 12 times. What is new is the strident partisanship bedeviling these efforts; this time the Republican leadership and half the Republicans in the House voted against a simple extension of the current bill. That does not bode well for future discussions.
The good news is that when you leave Washington DC, you find broad, bipartisan support for the bill from historically Republican interest groups, such as the business community, as well as traditionally Democratic interests, such as organized labor and environmentalists. I’ve heard from local elected officials from across the country—county supervisors and commissioners, city council people, mayors, whether they’re Republicans, Democrats, Independents, or non-partisan—who are united in wanting to provide the resources for an ambitious reauthorization. I am hopeful that once we get past this Tea Party spasm and some of the short-term politics, we can return Republicans to Congress—not just at the state and local levels—who will be willing to work with us. Our process simply works best when it’s non-partisan.
Between now and the election we’ve got some choppy waters to negotiate, and that, of course, feeds the Obama administration’s reluctance to weigh in on these issues. I’m hopeful that we can break into this vicious circle to get something moving forward.
VerdeX: How does high-speed rail fit into your agenda?
Rep. Blumenauer: Rail transport offers the perfect opportunity to combine more and better transportation choices, reduce the carbon footprint for passenger and freight movement, and spur economic revitalization. The public has been amazingly supportive of a comprehensive rail agenda, starting with higher speed inter-city rail. In the past, certain forces were bent on eliminating federal participation; this was thwarted primarily because the public supported rail and wouldn’t let it die. The Obama administration has reversed this course, designating $1 billion a year for high speed rail over the next five years, as well as $8 billion in grants. The president’s FY2011 budget also includes money—$1.6 billion—for Amtrak, the first such authorization in a dozen years. This has been a great shot in the arm. The One Rail effort—a collection of transit, Amtrak, the Class 1 freight railroads, and the short lines—is coalescing around a vision that includes inter-city passenger service, an unprecedented and an extraordinarily positive development, in my experience. The federal investment has taken Amtrak off life support and moved it toward a longer-term, more comprehensive investment, helping leverage California’s efforts to lead the country with state bonds for higher speed rail.
However, despite our unprecedented expenditures in rail over the next few years, we need to remember that China will spend more on their rail system in the next six weeks than all of our initiatives combined.
Beyond heavy rail, we’re seeing light rail extensions as well as the exciting re-introduction of the modern streetcar. As a member of the Portland City Council, I worked for ten years to get our streetcar up and running. It’s been operating for ten years, we’ve extended it three times, and we’re at work on a new loop that will open in 2012. We even have a company in the Portland region—United Streetcar, Inc—that is building the first streetcar in America in 58 years! The Obama administration has been much more supportive than the Bush administration. Two dozen cities around the country are looking at the streetcar. There is an exciting project in L.A. Whether it’s the streetcar, light rail, or higher speed inter-city passenger rail, there’s been significant momentum in this arena. The Obama administration has stepped up with significant money, and local communities are stretching their resources to contribute. This is one of the encouraging signs that gives us a strong platform to move forward.
VerdeX: California has proposed for the ballot in November an $11 billion water measure. Where does water stand in terms of the re-ordering of priorities in Washington?
Rep. Blumenauer: Water is probably our most important infrastructure issue, yet almost no one talks about it. Our water and sewer pipes are under the surface and out of sight, but they are actually in much worse shape than the roads and bridges that we use every day. Aging pipes and systems leak six billion gallons of water a day, creating health problems and destabilizing our roadways by creating massive sinkholes. This month, two million people in the metropolitan Boston area had to boil their drinking water because their water system failed. Similar failures sicken thousands of people every year. One thousand American communities have problems with combined sewer overflows. These problems are going to worsen dramatically because of the weather instability caused by climate change. Extreme weather events—drought, floods, and excessive storm water—are already straining our inadequate sewer and water systems. Local municipalities spend more on energy to pump and purify water than for any other use.
I have introduced bipartisan legislation that would create a water trust fund to leverage $1 trillion over the next 20 years to conduct research and support smaller communities that face major drinking water demands but have inadequate resources. I’ve been receiving advice and counsel on the design of this legislation from many experts in California. We have major support from the private sector and public sector water interests: unions, contractors, and environmental groups. The bill has bipartisan co-sponsorship, which is significant in this highly charged political climate. It’s an area that is going to demand attention, probably more rapidly and urgently then any other area, including energy, simply because of issues of supply and public health.
VerdeX: Rapid implementation of California’s landmark climate change legislation, AB 32, has generated partisan backlash. That backlash targets the Republican governor, who, in partnership with the Democratic Legislature, continues to target greenhouse gas reductions. Is partisanship not to be expected when great change is required and implemented by law? Is the hyper-partisanship today in Congress and California unique?
Rep. Blumenauer: Well, we have always had a partisan ebb and flow. We’ve seen independent groups command the national stage and roil the political waters. In 1992 it was Ross Perot. This spring, it is the Tea Party, which has essentially hijacked the more conservative and extreme interests in the Republican Party. They forced Governor Crist to leave the Republican Party in Florida, although ironically he is now leading in the polls. If somehow Senator Bob Bennett—a guy I’ve known and respected for years for his intellectual honesty and his hard work, a guy who is an extraordinarily conservative individual with an 88 rating from the NRA, a man whose grandfather was president of the Mormon Church and whose father was a Senator for 16 years—if he is not conservative enough for Republicans in Utah, that sends a shock wave to Republicans around the country.
But when extreme elements on any issue—whether it is immigration policy or infrastructure finance—take charge, we all suffer the consequences as people focus on reactive, short term “solutions.” What we really need is the kind of long term, thoughtful work being championed by people in Southern California on rebuilding and renewing their communities, making them sustainable and livable, with transportation, water, energy, community-centered schools, and the things that make a difference in people’s daily lives. I’m convinced that some of Southern California’s initiatives—the 30/10 plan, higher speed rail, and energy conservation—are truly national models, showing us how to thread the needle on these big policy questions, creating the success that Americans need and demand. •••