Transformation for America: T4 Reemerges With Focus on Local Control

John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, helped unveil the new Transportation for America. Photo by Stephen Lee Davis.

John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, helped unveil the new Transportation for America yesterday. Photo courtesy of T4.

Transportation for America has been in hiding. Perhaps you’ve noticed.

The coalition of over 500 organizations that came together to advocate for policy reform and adequate funding in the transportation reauthorization seemed to disappear for a little while after the dust settled on MAP-21. T4America, often called simply T4, provided analysis of the bill and helped reformers figure out how to make the most of it. And then T4 kind of went away.

The coalition was technically a campaign of Smart Growth America, and once the bill it was organizing around had passed — and was a pretty big disappointment — the group worked long and hard to figure out its next move.

Yesterday, Transportation for America announced that it had figured it out.

During the four-hour re-launch event T4 hosted in Union Station’s Columbus Room yesterday, there wasn’t much talk about organizational restructuring. Instead, panel after panel of mayors, MPO executives and other local officials talked about the challenges they faced and the solutions they’ve discovered as they sought to build stronger, more sustainable urban places. (More on that in a separate post.) But if you listened closely, you would learn all you needed to know about T4’s new direction.

“Some of the best decision-making and most courageous leadership is occurring at the local level,” said John Robert Smith, former Republican mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, and co-chair of Transportation for America. “That’s why we believe that more of the decision-making — and authority and accountability — should rest at local leadership.”

In the last go-round, Transportation for America tried to frame itself as a middle-of-the-road, agenda-free big tent, a broad coalition of disparate organizations asking for common-sense solutions for the nation’s transportation — and fiscal — problems. But somehow, it didn’t work that way. On the Hill, they were still seen as liberals trying to get everyone out of their cars.

They realized that their message resonated a lot more, and they made more inroads, when they brought local leaders to talk with their members of Congress.

Business leaders, mayors, and transportation officials are the new backbone of Transportation for America. Rather than represent an array of national groups, T4′s new core constituency are these local leaders. And their message has changed, too. Rather than push for this mode or that mode, T4’s message is now simple: local control.

It started with MAP-21’s silver lining, the Cardin-Cochran amendment that gave half of Transportation Alternatives (i.e. bike/ped) money directly to cities and MPOs. Where state officials often miss the uniqueness of urban transportation and how it differs from other parts of the states, local officials get it. David Goldberg of T4America says recruiting these local leaders to the new alliance has been easy.

“There are so many people at the local and regional level who have tried to solve problems by adding more lanes,” Goldberg said. “And now they’re facing the problem of ripping out subdivisions and tearing down office parks and shopping centers to build the lanes. And that’s not working. What they want to do instead is build more walkable neighborhoods around transit. That’s on the table almost everywhere you go.”

There are precious few mechanisms by which federal money flows directly to cities. With the exception of the TIGER grant program, cities and the feds barely talk to each other. All money and communication goes through the states, where funds often end up getting prioritized for state highways instead of urban transit or planning.

Goldberg said that after months of organization soul-searching, they discovered that the best thing they could do, rather than “craft an elaborate platform or a top down agenda,” was to aggregate and elevate the voices of local leaders who are trying to innovate.

When I told him I worried that if T4 stopped promoting specific modes, the country would be losing a major advocate for transit and active transportation, Goldberg reassured me: “We’re not losing a national advocate,” he said. “We’re gaining a whole lot more voices from the communities.”

“When we can let a chamber executive articulate why they need safe streets for people to get access to the transit systems they’re advocating for,” he went on, “then we actually we have stronger, unexpected messengers making arguments for transit investment, for safe bicycle and pedestrian access to transit and to workplaces.”