Streetsblog Capitol Hill Q&A: Blumenauer Talks Economic Recovery
On the issue of clean transportation, from transit to bike paths to clean water, few members of Congress are as knowledgeable or active as Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). Chief of the Congressional Bicycle Caucus and founder of the new Livable Communities Task Force, the Portland lawmaker is on the front lines of Washington’s biggest infrastructure debates. Streetsblog Capitol Hill spoke with him yesterday about the prospects for transportation in the coming jobs bill, which he has said could be paid for in part with Wall Street bailout money. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.
SCH: There is a growing focus on Capitol Hill on new infrastructure investments as part of a jobs bill that moves separately from the six-year transportation bill. What are your thoughts on the merits of moving on new spending versus a broader long-term bill?
EB: There is a terrific and very important complementary opportunity. Make no mistake, we need to have a six-year blueprint for how we rebuild and renew America for transportation. We’ve got a lot of work that has been done for last two-and-a-half years by the transportation committee; they’re in the home stretch. Literally, in a month, they could have a finalized version [of a six-year federal bill] and work it through with the administration, send it over to the Senate.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t be looking for opportunties to put people to work tomorrow, and the two are not by any stretch of the imagination mutually exclusive. We have so many transit agencies with deferred maintenance [needs], so many bridges that are functionally obsolete or dangerous.
I recently finished a conversation with Gov. [Ed] Rendell [D-PA], and the opportunities in his state are amazing. Lieutenant Gov. Dick Ravitch in New York, he’s got literally billions of dollars of things that need to be done. I’d be prepared to argue that we should go ahead with a big, comprehensive transportation bill, but there’s no reason we cannot put money out the door, literally within weeks, that can put tens of thousands of people to work in virtually every state in the union within a matter of months. Done right, the [two bills] will complement each other.
SCH: Clearly speed is a big concern, given that the goal is to put people to work quickly on projects. But we saw a lot of, for example, paving projects funded by the stimulus that may have created jobs but didn’t address larger problems with crumbling infrastructure. To what extent should the quality of transportation projects, and the need for a "fix-it-first" requirement, be a factor?
EB: Fix-it-first should be the watchword, so that we’re dealing with areas that are the higher priority. I personally wouldn’t have rushed things through quite as quickly as what happened last winter, 10 months ago. We had an opportunity [with the stimulus] — people wanted to do good work, and they wanted to make sure things were done quickly. Those don’t always align, but as a practical matter, all the evidence suggests [the stimulus] made a big difference. Ironically, people are criticizing it for not having as much impact as they maybe would like, but 40 percent of this whole package was dealing with tax adjustments, tax cuts and the alternative minimum tax. Only about 4 percent of the total package was real bricks and mortar infrastructure, which created 26 percent of the jobs.
But you need a predictable blueprint going forward, not something that’s stop-and-start, ‘hurry up now and there will be something in six months when the money runs out’. We need the overall picture, and some guidelines that hopefully put more of that money back in our metro areas, not just have it captured at the state level. Some states were pretty good at [apportioning transport aid], other states had different priorities that didn’t include spending it quickly or weren’t necessarily putting it where there was the greatest need.
This is an ongoing problem, by the way — Texas has been concerned about being a "donor state" [in terms of the federal gas tax], but the Dallas metro area … last I checked, Dallas was getting back 78 cents [from the state] for every dollar they invested in transportation. The metro areas are being, frankly, shortchanged even though they’re the areas where congestion is worst, where there is the most concentration of jobs and where infrastructure movement creates bottlenecks and difficulties in moving freight. There are things we can do with this pack to focus its delivery, I think, learning from the [first stimulus].
SCH: It sounds like you see "fix-it-first" having a role to play in the package, in terms of choosing projects on a merit basis.
EB: We need to have a certain degree of flexibility. You want to set goals and guidelines to have people held accountable; there’s no reason that we can’t condition some of this [on whether] people are going to use this money effectively to solve transportation problems … the American Society of Civil Engineers has graded our national infrastructure a D. They think it’s going to take 25 years [to make necessary repairs]. There’s no reason we we shouldn’t be able to do this.
SCH: Let’s talk about how to pay for this. You’ve proposed to use unspent bailout money, and there’s support for it on the Senate side, but signs that the White House may not agree. Do you think the president can be convinced?
EB: I think the White House is going to be facing some very real challenges with the depth of the economic hole we’re in. I think people, frankly, understated the problem last time [during the stimulus debate]; remember, in the House, we wanted to do a bigger bill. We’re moving into a period where the size of the deficit is going to loom larger and larger as an area of concern. Putting together a package that combines maybe a little of this money that would otherwise go to Wall Street, giving it to Main Street, I think it has great appeal.
If Congress does its job by advancing a broader agenda and a reasonable mechanism for financing it, then it’s kind of, well, the other players can put up or shut up. We can set the stage and move forward.
The job piece of this equation has continued to haunt us for the last year. This so-called jobless recovery suggests it’s going to [linger into] next year as well. We’re likely, in the summer, to have double-diitg unemployment even if everything works right. Construction unemployment, I’m hearing from the national numbers something like 18 percent, but if you look at the regions … we’re looking at big numbers this next year: 25, 30 percent or more unemployed.
SCH: Which segues into another aspect of the funding — how much of this jobs package can, or needs to be, offset [by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget]. Blue Dogs in the House and some Democratic senators are likely to push for that.
EB: Part of this is smoking people out. There are some people who are all in favor of big authorization [bills] but a little shy about putting money on the table.
There is a consensus in America that people care enough about improving their quality of life, protecting the environment, strengthening roads, transit, parks, bridges, parkways. We could focus entirely on clean water — this has overwhelming public support. Frank Luntz [a longtime Republican pollster] did the most recent poll I saw in this area, and found a majority of Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike would increase their taxes to pay for infrastructure.
Ronald Reagan understood and supported a nickel-per-gallon gas tax increase, back when that was a big chunk of money, in the mid-1980s. There are any number of mechanisms. There is the transactions fee that Prime Minister Gordon Brown mentioned in Great Britain last month. There is a broad range of interests and individuals that want to be a part of [expanding] infrastructure and want to [do so] without increasing debt.
If we embark upon an aggressive program of rebuilding and renewing America, everything from high-speed rail to bridges to streetcars to parks and water, it’s going to generate huge amounts of other economic activity. It’s going to create tax revenue, going to put people to work. Our models don’t pick that up [by using] present-value accounting, the tangible effects of making our transit systems more efficient, converting our public facilities from energy sinks, cleaning up Superfund sites where the contamination is in danger of getting worse. The evidence is compelling that strategic infrastructure investment really sparks and leverages other expenditures.