Flashback: Obama Once Led Push for ‘Complete Streets’

With Congress out of town on its Memorial Day break, the nation's capital is a quiet place to be -- but all of that will change next week, as the appearance of the House transportation bill is expected to kick off an intense battle to reshape federal policy on transit, bikes, roads and bridges.

obama_1.jpgBefore he was president, he was a fan of "complete streets." (Photo: whitehouse via Flickr)

Many urbanites remember the last congressional transportation bill as a disappointment that pushed a pro-highways approach while forcing transit projects to compete for a small slice of the federal funding pie. But that 2005 transportation clash brought us some instructive moments that escaped the mainstream media's focus at the time.

As a semi-regular feature on Streetsblog Capitol Hill, I'll be looking back at past transportation debates that have the potential to impact the upcoming re-write. For today's installment, let's look at the "complete streets" amendment that fell six votes short of passage in 2005 but had a pretty crucial sponsor: then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL).

The "complete streets" amendment submitted four years ago was similar to the legislation that was recently re-introduced in both the House and Senate. It would have required state DOTs to account for bike paths and pedestrian access wherever feasible and required metropolitan planning organizations that serve populations of 200,000 or more to appoint a coordinator for bike-and-ped programs.

Obama did not speak in favor of the amendment, but the future president's early endorsement of complete streets principles provides a powerful tool to livable streets advocates working on this year's transportation bill. Few arguments are as effective in Washington as a charge of flip-flopping -- to which the Obama administration risks exposing itself if it doesn't support a national "complete streets" policy in this year's bill.

What's more, if senators maintained their past positions, the Obama "complete streets" amendment would almost surely pass into law today. Since the proposal lost by six votes in 2005, 11 GOP Senate seats have flipped to the Democratic column (including party-switcher Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania).

Of course, "complete streets" may be included from day one in the Senate's next transportation bill, especially now that the House has added similar language to its climate change legislation. But that would open the door to a GOP amendment striking "complete streets" from the bill, and to the same tired and false rhetoric that Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) used to kill the Obama amendment in 2005:

What this amendment says is: If you are planning a highway from Leftover Shoes to Podunk Junction in the middle of a state with nobody around, you would have to plan for a bike path. We have a lot of roads through our Ozark hills and farmland where the danger is inadequate two-lane highways. People are not going to ride bicycles along those highways. They need the lanes to drive their cars. Putting an additional planning burden on agencies that don't want or need bike paths is another unwarranted mandate.