When President Eisenhower proposed an interstate highway system in the mid-1950s, national defense was a primary motivator behind a national network of freeways.
In the 21st century, military mobility may be just as important, but Congressman Earl Blumenauer says quality transportation infrastructure is crucial to the country's well being in other ways.
'Now it's about our economic security,' said Blumenauer in an address at Fairview City Hall on Tuesday, March 18. 'We have to have a plan for this century for all the infrastructure pieces,' including roads, airports and light rail.
Blumenauer spoke at a transportation forum co-sponsored by the East Metro Economic Alliance, the Gresham Area, West Columbia Gorge and East Portland chambers of commerce. The congressman was keynote speaker for the lunch event, which also featured Metro regional government councilors Rex Burkholder and Rod Park.
Blumenauer made it to the event fresh from unveiling legislation in Washington, D.C., to create a long-range transportation plan involving federal and local collaboration. He was animated and appeared enthused as he discussed infrastructure challenges in Oregon and around the country.
'What we're attempting to do in D.C., I want to make sure there is a parallel effort at the regional and state level,' he said, expressing concern about a 'serious infrastructure crisis.'
Citing everything from crowded highways to crumbling sewers, Blumenauer said funding and planning in recent years is not adequate to address looming needs. He compared today's federal infrastructure debt unfavorably with the Carter administration in the 1970s, when he said road funding was a higher priority.
'There has been no federal ongoing presence to help us face problems,' he said. 'We've got to put more money in the pipeline. We also need to develop a vision for what we're buying - what it is we're spending (tax) money on.'
Councilors Burkholder and Park spoke before Blumenauer arrived. They addressed local matters such as funding a new Sellwood Bridge, the possibility of toll charges on bridges and increasing gas taxes to raise revenue, and the long-debated connector between the freeway system and Highway 26.
With a backlog of projects and increasing calls for regional transportation solutions, Burkholder said Metro is trying to think outside the box.
'How can we be more innovative and do things differently?' he asked. 'Our goal in Metro is to pull all this together … With more economic development, people have more choices. We're looking at what projects get us the best return on our investments.'
During the forum's question-and-answer period, Hiroshi Morihara, chief executive officer of Persimmon Realty Group, asked Blumenauer how the United States could achieve an environmentally friendly, state-of-the-art transportation system like he sees in Japan.
'We had the best transportation system in the world until World War II,' the congressman said. 'I'm confident we can do at least as well as back then.'