Streetsies 2011: Bums and Bummers

On our walk down the memory lane of 2011 so far, we’ve talked about some downers, some inspirations, some triumphs, and some struggles. Check out our first two installments of year-end Streetsie award nostalgia. Here’s some more.

Best Obama Plan That Died a Slow and Horrible Death This Year: How to choose, when there were so many? The president laid out a big, bold, ambitious transportation plan for the next six years but then stayed mum on the all-important question of how to fund it, and so, predictably, it died. His American Jobs Act included $50 billion for infrastructure projects, including at least $13 billion for rail and transit. It, too, went nowhere fast.

Obama's high-speed rail plans took a fast train to nowhere. Photo: America 2050

That wasn’t Obama’s fault, but if you’re looking for a reason to be angry at him, look no further than the ozone pollution rules the EPA was going to strengthen. The president froze at the last minute and decided to hold off another couple years, to give the economy a chance to recover (or business interests a chance to vote for him). The new ozone standard would have saved an estimated 12,000 lives and made transportation reforms essential.

But who could blame the 47 percent of you who awarded the Streetsie for saddest death of an Obama program to high-speed rail? Congress takes every opportunity to yank money away from the program, three Republican governors have very publicly thumbed their noses at federal funds, and the only true high-speed rail line with the potential to be truly transformative is in deep doo-doo in California. So much for 80 percent access in 25 years.

Non-Presidential Vices: Yes, we had our share of letdowns from President Obama this year. But not all our disappointments were related to him. We were also bummed to see plans scrapped for the Woodward Light Rail line in Detroit, and the failure of the Seattle car tab fee, which would have gone to transit, bike/ped and road maintenance. And certainly we were disappointed that the Senate transportation bill, in the end, didn’t keep dedicated funding for bike/ped. But the Streetsie for the biggest letdown has to go to the bait-and-switch the House Republicans pulled about funding their transportation plan.

It was simple enough when they were threatening to cut spending by a third so as not to overspend Highway Trust Fund receipts. Just about everyone hated the idea. But then the GOP said they’d match current levels and it seemed the best of both worlds – reasonable spending levels and a longer-term bill than the Senate was offering.

Hallelujah! So what’s the catch?

Turns out the catch was that it would be funded with oil drilling revenues. Even if it passed, the revenues would be too low and come too late to really pay for the bill, experts agreed. And of course, it would never pass anyway. Republicans have been making absolutely everything an excuse to try to pass oil-expansion legislation lately, and they have to know that the Democrats aren’t biting.

After the hard-fought Senate bill passed unanimously out of committee, with both sides making significant concessions so that they could produce a bill with a chance of passage, it was absolutely insulting for the House to produce something so ludicrously partisan. It made it clear, once and for all, that they had no intention of actually bringing a bill to passage this year.

Sen. James Inhofe: Public Enemy Number One. Photo: AP

Walkers’ and Cyclists’ Public Enemy Number One: What a year it’s been for the whimsical dreamers among us who actually believe we can get around on our own two feet – or two wheels – instead of an automobile. All autumn, Republicans lined up to shoot down the tiny amount of federal funding we get to carve out a little bit of safe space on the roadway.

House leaders staged an a-ha moment in September, in which they realized the parties could find consensus on infrastructure spending if they would just eliminate the “set-aside” for Transportation Enhancements. Then a whole parade of senators got in on the act, starting with Tom Coburn’s attempt to block a clean extension of the transportation bill (jeopardizing 80,000 jobs) unless they went along with his diabolical plot to kill TE in its sleep. Then Sen. John McCain tried to cut back on the program.

And Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky took it to a whole new level of kook when he called TE a fund for “turtle tunnels and squirrel sanctuaries and all this craziness.” Ever hear of bicycle commuting, Mr. Paul? It grew by 137 percent between 2008 and 2009 in Lexington. And Louisville is building a 100-mile Louisville Loop for hiking and biking. Just ask your constituents how crazy active transportation funds are.

But you, dear readers, reserved your greatest ire – and the 2011 Streetsie award – for Sen. James Inhofe. He stayed above the fray as his misguided colleagues engaged in their petty little antics because he had the inside track on killing dedicated funding for bike/ped once and for all. After all, the Senate transportation bill wouldn’t go anywhere if he wasn’t on board, and he made it his solemn duty to strip out the hated “set-aside” for Transportation Enhancements. At least he got the numbers right and acknowledged that TE amounted to less than two percent of the transportation program, not 10 percent as his colleagues falsely claimed.

A.J. Nelson, age 4, was killed while crossing the street between a bus stop and his home with his mother and two sisters.

Most Outrageous Attack on Cyclists and Pedestrians: The attacks didn’t all come from Capitol Hill, of course. Parents in Tennessee and Michigan were threatened with child-endangerment charges for letting their kids ride bikes. And even bike-friendly Seattle showed its dark side in 2011 with the astonishing ignorance of its police department. Cops recently berated an injured jogger by calling him names and telling him, “That’s why you drive a car!” And they’re getting tough on pedestrians and cyclists while letting bad driver behavior slide. In 2010, the department issued just 197 tickets to drivers for failing to yield — and 1,570 citations to pedestrians.

But the incident we all have burned into our memories – the one that still haunts us as we walk and ride around our hometowns – is the grievous wrong done to Raquel Nelson, She had to suffer the anguish of losing her four-year-old son to an impaired driver and then the injustice of having the blame fall on her. Cobb County, Georgia, gave a slap on the wrist to the driver and, as far as we can tell, no blame at all to the planners of auto-centric street design that makes tragedies like these inevitable. But the county charged Nelson with vehicular homicide.

It still burns us up – and makes us cry – just to think about it. Seventy-seven percent of you agreed, giving a landslide Streetsie to the prosecutors who saw fit to charge her and the jury – all whites who had never gotten on public transportation in their lives – that convicted her.

Sweet, Sweet Victory: It’s hard to see a silver lining in the whole Raquel Nelson tragedy, but more than a third of you agreed that it gave birth to one of the year’s key victories. Streetsblog caught wind of the Nelson trial once the jury had convicted her, and our coverage sparked national media attention, which led to major petition drives and resulted in a barrage of letters and phone calls to the judge. And when it came time for the judge to give her sentence, she offered a light one – or a new trial. Nelson’s lawyer said “a judge, on her own motion, granting a new trial” was “one of the most shocking things” he’d even seen in a courtroom.

Nelson took the option of a new trial, which has seen a number of delays. We hope the county prosecutors will wise up and drop the charges already, but if not, we’re confident another jury will find a different outcome.