Rep. Blumenauer led a movement of connection and choice

June 4, 2024
Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s time in public service has been spent advocating for causes that give people more choices in how they live, move and connect within their communities.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR-3) has been a champion of sustainable, equitable infrastructure and mobility during his more than 50-year career in public service. 

He is credited with jump starting the modern streetcar movement, advocating for active transportation infrastructure, particularly bike lanes, and delivering policy wins, including the Inflation Reduction Act, which included significant climate and energy investments and creating the Small Starts funding mechanism under the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grants Program. 

These efforts support his quest to create livable communities – places where residents are safe, healthy and economically secure – and where the federal government works with stakeholders at the state and local level and with individuals to create value people need for their lives. 

“I think our work on livable communities is a way to bridge that gap, to bring people together to solve problems rather than create new ones,” said Rep. Blumenauer. “It's so important to bring people together not divide them. There's a lot of power in that concept and we've seen it work.”

One of the areas where this concept has worked is in Portland, Ore., the congressman’s hometown, and where he spent his early years in elected office in the Oregon State Legislature and Multnomah County Commission working on several issues, including efforts to move past a car-centric approach to urban planning. 

At the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) Mobility Conference held in Portland this past April, Rep. Blumenauer said he felt he was “chasing the ghost of Robert Moses,” who was commissioned by the city in the 1940s and developed a public works plan rooted in freeway construction. 

“If we had taken the terrible path of implementing Robert Moses' vision, we would have had one in 10 people in Portland live immediately adjacent to a freeway or having been moved to make way for it and that [would have] had devastating consequences,” explained Rep. Blumenauer. 

While the plan Moses developed for Portland was deemed too expensive to implement, his vision influenced freeway construction in the region, including that of Interstate 5 in the 1960s, which divided the Albina neighborhood – a then-thriving Black community. Rep. Blumenauer called the construction of the interstate “culturally devastating in terms of economic impacts” to the neighborhood. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently awarded a $450 million Fiscal Year 2023 Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant to the Oregon Department of Transportation for the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project, which is part of a regional effort to reconnect the Albina neighborhood. 

“[The grant was] made to be able to restore, to heal those scars on our community and set up a model for what we can do elsewhere,” explained Rep. Blumenauer at APTA’s Mobility Conference. “Done right, it’s extraordinarily powerful. Done right, it's within our capacity to maximize those investments. Too often, we’ve seen projects inflicted on people rather than with them…I'd like to think that some of what we've done in Portland is a different model. One of inclusion. One of an emphasis on long-term planning and trying to get the most out of those resources.”

Streetcars and Small Starts

The Portland Streetcar project, which opened in 2001, is one example of a project developed with community support and one that provided a model replicated in other cities. 

As Rep. Blumenauer recounts, the development of the modern streetcar movement is rooted in the enthusiasm of a Portland businessperson, Bill Naito, and using that enthusiasm to create public interest in the mode. Naito acquired three antique streetcars in Portugal and convinced TriMet to allow operation of the streetcars along 2.3 miles of the agency’s light-rail line. Rep. Blumenauer called the move a “masterstroke” in gaining the public’s attention and raise excitement, which allowed the plan for the Portland Streetcar to emerge. 

Four years after the initial segment of the Portland Streetcar began operation, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, a surface transportation funding bill, established the Small Starts program. The new program provided a federal funding process for lower-cost fixed guideway and non-fixed guideway projects, including bus rapid transit and streetcar projects.  

“The streetcar provided an important niche. It was cheaper. It was faster. It had an opportunity to really capture the imagination in a way that the larger light-rail car didn't. We have now over two dozen programs around the country that are streetcar and a number of the original ones are now looking at expansion,” said Rep. Blumenauer. “Being able to reignite the interest, for me, was one of the most exciting chapters of anything I’ve been involved with.”

Funding the future of mobility

Rep. Blumenauer calls reliance on the gas tax to fund the bulk of the nation’s transportation priorities “a losing proposition,” but notes road user charges could provide part of the solution.

While Rep. Blumenauer has lived in Washington, D.C., for 28 years without a car, he does own a vehicle in Oregon and participates in the state’s OReGO program. The program invoices participants a per-mile charge for the miles they drive and the participants receive a non-refundable credit for fuel tax paid when they fill up their tanks at a gas pump. 

“Ultimately, we need to have a road user charge,” said Rep. Blumenauer. “A road user charge that keeps track of how far everybody drives is much more efficient, is it is less disruptive and, in the long run, it's the fairest approach.”

Another concept with potential to financially support broader transportation programs is parking cash out plans, where employers that offer free parking allow employees to use the cash equivalent of that benefit to pay for their choice of transportation options. It could be paying for private parking, gas, transit or a bike – the option is given back to the user.

“Cashing out parking gives commuters more choices, just candidly, it has another advantage, because if they choose to take that benefit in the form of cash, it's a taxable benefit. That will raise $20 billion dollars or more over the 10-year budget window and there's a lot of money that can be redirected for other opportunities to expand the transportation choices for the community,” explained Rep. Blumenauer. 

Providing choices is an important part of Rep. Blumenauer’s livable communities ethos. 

“As I do work all over the country, I'm watching people understand that there is great value to giving citizens the choice of being able to walk, run, skate, bike or take transit,” said Rep. Blumenauer. “That choice is a very fundamental one and it helps define what I think is the essence of a livable community - giving people more choices - and that mobility choice is one of the most fundamental.”

In November 2023, Rep. Blumenauer announced he would not seek re-election. As his time as an elected official draws to a close and he prepares to become a private citizen, he remains committed to advocating for causes he has long championed, including providing options to communities in how their residents live and connect. 

“What I would like to be identified with is this notion of giving people more choices…that to me is very important to be able to take the forces of change to solve problems rather than create new ones,” said Rep. Blumenauer. “I'd like to think with what we've done in terms of bike and pedestrians, streetcar, the urban design strategies, that these are things that have given people more choices for their lives and I would like that to be the legacy…for us here in Congress. Bring people together to solve problems and do it in a cooperative way, use proven technology, engage citizens as part of the solutions; these are the things that are enduring and those are the things - I don't know if they'll talk about it in 50 years - but those are the things that people will appreciate in 50 years.”

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.