Congressman Blumenauer Interview

By Jessica Tirado

1. How did you first get interested in urban and transportation issues?

Growing up in the Portland in the 1960s, at the height of the emphasis on cars and highways, I saw how this focus shaped not only our city center but our neighborhoods.  When I was elected to the Oregon legislature in 1972, I had the opportunity to craft some meaningful policy to broaden our definition of transportation to include walking, biking and public transit.  I was instrumental in passing the legislation that transformed the Oregon Highway Department into a multi-modal Department of Transportation.  Later, as a member of the Portland City Council, I was fortunate enough to be able to translate my love of bicycling into better policies and a more bicycle-friendly city.  In addition, the opening of our first light rail line, MAX, in 1986 provided a wonderful opportunity to see how we could capitalize on this public investment to improve our neighborhoods and our city.  In a sense, it was a remarkable confluence of interest and opportunity.

2. What positive experience with Portland would you highlight as an example to follow for future city planning?

Although I’m extremely proud of several projects, the element common to all of them is the wonderful contributions that citizens have made to the planning process, especially in transportation.  In many places, public participation is seen as something to be avoided at all costs; after all, planners and engineers and elected officials have a difficult enough time simply following the myriad of regulations and policy requirements that they face on a daily basis.  But what we’ve found in Portland is that meaningful public participation vastly improves the caliber of our plans and our projects.  When I was a member of the Portland City Council, with responsibilities for transportation, I initiated a university-level class for citizens on Traffic and Transportation.  Taught by some of the City’s best transportation planners and traffic engineers, this 12-week course gave citizens a broad understanding of the various levels of transportation policies that govern the City’s work.  At the end of the course, we asked participants to present their own solutions to sticky neighborhood traffic problems that had continually frustrated our planners and engineers.  It wasn’t that our professional staff wasn’t up to snuff; it was that people who lived and worked in our neighborhoods had a different – and highly useful – perspective that was often overlooked in our zeal to address these issues.  This class gave them the information they needed to make meaningful contributions to their communities and to participate in a constructive fashion.  The City came out ahead in every regard and many of the citizens who participated in this course – there are now over 400 -- have continued to be effective advocates for better communities.

3. What do you think about the New Urbanism movement, its projects and achievements?

New Urbanism is making an important contribution to the livability of our communities because it is giving people more choices about how they live, how their communities function, and how they move around. 
New Urbanism requires an effective partnership between developers, communities, financiers, and architects in order to work.  Kentlands, Maryland is a great example of how the pieces can fit together to work for the community, for its residents, and for the marketplace.   Compared to most other developments on Greenfield sites, it is highly successful in all of these regards.  I hope, though, that the New Urbanists will take a look at the opportunities presented by infill and redevelopment in our older communities.  Although Greenfield development provides fewer regulatory burdens and the opportunity to accomplish things more quickly and cheaply, I look forward to seeing what New Urbanists can do with older neighborhoods and suburbs like we have in Portland. There are some very interesting efforts underway in the Pearl District here, but there’s even greater opportunity – and need – in the redevelopment of worn-out strip malls and declining older suburbs at the edge of the urbanized areas.  This is certainly the next challenge.

4. How are you working to influence others in Congress to pursue similar goals in different states?

I went to Congress in 1996 to make the federal government a better partner to local governments in their efforts to create livable communities.  Having worked in local government for well over a decade, I saw how our efforts could be supported – or thwarted – by federal policies and funding.  I created a Livable Communities Task Force to educate my colleagues in the House about issues that would make a difference in their communities.  We hold bi-weekly briefings on issues ranging from closing military bases to flood insurance to land use to the health implications of sprawl and have been highly successful in raising the level of awareness of these issues with an increasing number of House Members and their staffs.  It’s also been a useful venue to increase access to Members of Congress from organizations ‘off of the Hill.’  
I also quickly learned that nothing can be accomplished in Congress without bipartisan support.  Livable Communities is simply not a partisan issue; everyone – regardless of their politics -- needs to live in a place where their families are safe, feel secure, and contribute to a vibrant economy.  I’ve also visited over 100 communities across the nation since I went to Congress in 1996, learning about their challenges and efforts to make their communities more livable, and sharing some of what we’ve learned from our challenges and successes in Portland.

5. In your opinion, what are the biggest barriers Transit Oriented Development faces – and how can they be overcome?

The need to increase federal funding for transit is certainly one of the biggest challenges I see to moving TOD to the next level.  Local transit agencies are making service cuts and pulling back from plans for new service or new modes of transit – just when national polls indicate a steadily growing support for public transit.  We need to find innovative ways to move forward and get projects from the planning stage to construction.  TOD provides us with an opportunity to engage the private sector, but it will require vision and leadership from local governments and transit agencies.
The Transportation Efficiency Act of the 21st Century (TEA-21) provides the flexibility and funds for transit agencies to do TOD, but there is no federal pot of money yet to encourage the private sector’s involvement. Thus it’s considerably harder – almost impossible – for private developers to access federal funds for critical leverage or seed money.  We’ve made significant progress in helping the transit industry and the federal government realize the connection between development at transit stations and increased ridership and fare box revenue.  Our next challenge is to extend this thinking beyond the transit station to a larger footprint, to think about how retail and commercial development fit into this strategy, and how better transit access benefits the entire community.  There is, as you know, significant effort underway at the local level to make sure that local zoning codes and regulations do not impede TOD.  I do not advocate having the federal government get involved at this level, but do think the federal government should be supporting communities who are struggling to update their planning process and zoning codes, especially when they engage the public in this process.
Finally, I hear a lot of interest from people in the Smart Growth and architecture communities to connect housing more strongly with TOD.  In Portland, we’ve seen a strong desire in the market for transit oriented housing at all income levels.  The City and the development community in Portland have been working – and succeeding – to encourage new housing developments near our growing transit infrastructure.  Along our newly opened Streetcar, for example, we’ve generated over $1.3 billion of development.  While a great deal of this is higher-end housing, there is also moderate- and lower-income housing that incorporates some very good urban design.  These are the kind of developments we need to connect people to jobs and other opportunities throughout the region.  We need to make sure the federal government is working to support these kinds of projects.
6. What do you hope to achieve with the Rail~Volution movement?

The national Rail~Volution conference started in 1995 as an outgrowth of a highly successful Regional Rail Summit that we’d held the four preceding years in Portland.  Designed to engage citizens with planners, architects, engineers, and elected officials, the Summit was an immediate hit and soon drew participants from other states and Canada.  Since its first convention in Portland in 1995, Rail~Volution: Building Livable Communities with Transit has been held in 5 different cities in the past 7 years, each year attracting a growing number of participants from an ever-increasing number of interest groups. 
The express purpose of this conference is to build a diverse coalition of people, professions, and interest groups to capitalize on transit to build more livable communities.  It is, I believe, the only conference to really bring together professionals from transportation, community design, planning, housing, health, social justice, education, elected officials, and community advocates.
In many ways, the conference has now outgrown its name.  We started with an emphasis on rail investment, but are now addressing issues of public health, obesity, bus rapid transit, access to social services, environmental justice, bicycling, streetcars, development, public participation, and urban design.  Just as our understanding of transit investments has grown beyond where to lay the tracks, Rail~Volution has grown to focus on what we want to see outside the train window.

7. What are your suggestions for ways to show how government transportation spending either helps encourage sprawl, or helps prevent it so the average voter can understand?

The best way for people to understand this connection is to look at their own communities.  Where has most of the development of the past twenty-five years occurred?  Where is it occurring now?  Both good and bad examples abound.  In Phoenix, Las Vegas and Tucson, places that were scenic deserts only a few years – or months – ago are now the sites of new freeways, subdivisions and strip malls, all designed around automobiles.  In other places -- San Diego, Arlington Virginia and Portland, just to name a few -- much of the new development has happened near rail transit. 

8. What do you think it will take to halt road building in America and transfer the majority of the money into building a network of state-of-the-art train systems like they have in Europe?  Do you see this as a large part of a strategy for encouraging smart growth and halting sprawl at the same time?

The choice between roads and transit is a false – and dangerous – one for those promoting Smart Growth.  A livable – or New Urbanist -- community should provide people with choices, not dictate what kind of transportation they must use. Providing choices means that we need to invest in more than a single transportation mode.  Not everyone can – or should – take the transit, ride a bike, or even walk. Neither should they have to drive for every trip they need to make.  We won’t be able to provide a full range of transportation choices, however, until we level the playing field by increasing our overall transportation investment, thereby making more money available for transit as well as for better facilities for walking and biking. 
Currently, we are not even able to maintain the road and transit systems we have in place.  According to the US Department of Transportation, we need $53 billion each year to maintain our highway and transit systems – and $75 billion more for critically needed improvements.  At current funding levels, the federal investment gap is $14.2 billion – and growing.  This year alone, over 200 new fixed guideway projects are seeking federal funding; more than 70 communities are looking for federal help in developing streetcar systems.  According to the American Public Transit Association (APTA), public transit agencies have $12 billion in projects ready to begin construction in the next 90 days – if federal funds were only available. 
This level of federal investment won’t happen, however, until we broaden the constituencies advocating for transit funding.  We need to hear from everyone who has a stake in this – not just the transit agencies, but mayors, governors, community leaders, state legislators, citizens, architects, business leaders, environmentalists, health professionals, educators, and social service providers.  I think there is a natural alignment between people who want to see increased transit investment and those who support New Urbanist efforts.  We all have a stake in the livability of our communities.

9. In summary, what would you say it takes to create more ‘livable communities’ in America?

Everyone has a stake in the livability of their communities.  If we are to increase transportation and housing choices, create places that are healthy, secure, and economically vibrant, we need to move beyond the silo thinking of professional and personal interests.  We need to create opportunities for people from all walks of life, from all points of view, and from all levels of government to work in effective partnerships.  My goal in Congress is to make the federal government a better partner with state and local governments and to lead by example, modeling the behavior it expects from others.  These principles also apply to state and local governments, as well as to professionals and advocates.  Creating community is just as much about the process we use as it is about our objective.

10. Please talk a little about your efforts to help get other like-minded people elected to office.

Since coming to Congress in 1996, I have visited more than 100 communities across the country to share ‘The Portland Story’ in both political and non-political gatherings. I have also invited a number of my Congressional colleagues to Portland for a firsthand look at our challenges and successes and to introduce them to key players in livable community efforts here. I have also formed a Leadership PAC, the Committee for a Livable Future, to support like-minded people in their Congressional campaigns.

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