U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer
The Portland area’s failure to come together to support a top priority transportation project has hurt its chances to win federal money from a highly competitive federal grant program.
That was the tough message delivered Thursday by U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer to a panel of local elected officials who control transportation spending in the three-county area. Blumenauer reacted to the committee’s endorsement of five projects competing for federal money, including the Sellwood Bridge in Portland and industrial site improvements in Clackamas and Troutdale.
Rather than help the region compete for money, the letter from the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation "moved us down a rung," Blumenauer said.
"It had five projects and no priorities," Blumenauer said. "We as a region need to be very clear about what we’re doing."
In a rare appearance at the committee’s monthly meeting at Metro, Blumenauer applauded the region’s decades of innovation in building light rail and streetcar projects and revitalizing urban neighborhoods. He recounted many tough choices made when local political leaders "stretched" to get projects like a MAX light rail extension all the way to Hillsboro, for example, rather than settling for a shorter line.
He warned, however, that other metropolitan areas have caught on to the same ingredients and are more competitive. Los Angeles, Phoenix and Charlotte have passed sales or other tax measures to raise money for transportation investments on a large scale, he said.
"The rest of the country has been inspired by your work, which means there’s more competition," he said. "It’s not clear what our regional transportation funding strategy is."
The committee reacted quietly and seemed to take the message seriously. Comprised of mayors, county and transportation agency officials from across the region, the transportation committee had openly struggled in recent months with how to handle applications for the federal grant program known as TIGER III.
The prospect of endorsing a single highly competitive project as a region seemed to force members to forgo advocating for their own community’s projects in favor of the region’s favorite, a hard thing to ask of local elected officials. It might force their own political will to take a back seat to technical rankings of projects. Or it could open the door to political deals building consensus – but on projects that might not be the best ones for the grant program.
"The delegation will support anything the region does … even if it is suboptimal," Blumenauer said.
Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers, who has served on the transportation committee for decades, asked Blumenauer for guidance in figuring out which projects to endorse.
"What’s the flavor of the month in Washington D.C.?" he asked. "Is it a rail project? We have lots of those. Is it safety?"
Blumenauer said the relatively new federal program is "an effort to get away from the flavor of the day" and look at multidimensional ways transportation projects can have a big impact. The program, known as TIGER III, Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, provides $527 million for road, rail, public transit and port projects nationwide.
In two previous rounds, the program received applications for $79 billion in projects, even though it had only $2.1 billion to spend.
To be fair, the transportation committee’s members have for years called for more investment in infrastructure. The panel approved a 2035 Regional Transportation Plan last year that said "the region’s economy and livability" depend on finding solutions to transportation funding. Local leaders also pushed the legislature to pass House Bill 2001, a 2009 bill that raised the state gas tax for the first time since 1993.
A Community Investment Initiative Metro helped start is looking at ways to improve the effectiveness of the region’s transportation system. But it’s also looking at other investment priorities.
In the Westside MAX Blue Line extension in the 1990s, Blumenauer said, "it was right to stretch" politically and financially to get the project to Hillsboro rather than stopping in Beaverton.
"We can talk about other areas where we have done that as a region," he said. "Which begs the question: Where are we now?"