Would Dems’ Pledge for “Change” Bring Transportation Reform?

Hillary Clinton ad now airing in Southern California

This is part two of a two-part series on where candidates for
president stand on transportation issues, authored by Streetsblog Los
Angeles correspondent Damien Newton. Damien currently runs the blog Street Heat,
which is soon to become Streetsblog L.A., our first foray into foreign
territory. Damien was New Jersey coordinator for the Tri-State
Transportation Campaign before relocating to California last year.
Yesterday he examined the platforms and records of the Republican
presidential candidates
; today, the Democrats.

For the Democrats, the race for the nomination has been about one thing: change. Each of the Democratic candidates offer some vision of change for how our government views and funds transportation.

Streetsblog noted in one if its first posts of the new year that Senator Barack Obama is the only Democrat that promotes cycling as part of his platform. Back in November, I noted on my blog that Obama has also pledged to force states and municipalities to include energy conservation in any transportation plan that involves federal funds, and says he would equalize tax benefits received by car and bike commuters. While Obama is strong on stopping sprawl and promoting walking and biking, he doesn’t mention transit anywhere on his web site that I could find.

However, a look into Obama’s record shows a strong history of transit activism. As a U.S. senator, Obama worked with fellow Illinois Senator Dick Durbin to get financial help for Chicago’s L-Trains. As a state senator, he worked with community groups to increase access to transit for the disabled and underprivileged.

As first lady, Michelle Obama could emerge as a vocal supporter of urban transportation projects; Mrs. Obama served as chair of Chicago Transit Authority’s Citizen Advisory Board.

New York Senator Hillary Clinton is the only candidate to offer a specific proposal to improve transit: an annual increase of $1.5 billion in urban rail funding. The plan also offers specific information on fighting sprawl and increasing development density.

As a candidate for the Senate, Clinton preached the value of "leaving cars in their garage," and has since acted to support transit measures. Recently, her Senate office released a statement on the potential Amtrak strike. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an outspoken supporter of her campaign, often notes that more funds were available for urban transit projects when her husband was president.

Senator John Edwards’ energy plan pledges to promote policies that will slow sprawl and reduce vehicle miles traveled. However, Edwards only mentions transit as a tool for "restoring economic fairness." The former senator and Democratic VP nom has received support from a New York based transit union, but that seems to have more to do with his odds of being elected than his transit advocacy. At least when Nevada’s UTU endorsed Clinton, it managed to mention transportation related issues. Edwards’ one term in the Senate didn’t produce a strong record either for or against any major transportation plans. He even skipped a vote on the Highway Transportation Funding Bill.

So it appears that each of the leading Democratic candidates does embrace the notion of some sort of transportation reform, but wholesale "change" doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Tomorrow, January 31, NYU’s Wagner Rudin Center will host a transportation and infrastructure forum, moderated by "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz, to which all Republican and Democratic candidates have been invited.  

Video: YouTube via Street Heat, which offers analysis from an L.A. perspective

20 thoughts on Would Dems’ Pledge for “Change” Bring Transportation Reform?

  1. It would be interesting to know if hillary
    voted for oil companies in the first place. considering all the years congress gave away the money.

    Another interesting why wouldn’t you promote cycling an energy source, as it don’t cost 50 billion dollars.

  2. We tap into the great energy source of cycling to get us around. Maybe focus on humans as an energy source.

    You know that thing called inertia?

  3. No, that’s impossible. It takes a lot of energy to power civilization, bicycles aren’t going to cut it.

    Obama is pro-coal, so he’s the worst candidate for energy and the environment.

    He also doesn’t mention transit… apparently we’re all supposed to unite together in a dream of going to work and we’ll magically be able to find ourselves there. As Obama says, he believes in the power and uniqueness of the American people to solve all our problems (with absolutely no substance or sacrifice!)

  4. Credit should be given to anyone who in anyway supported higher fuel taxes at any time. They are all wedded to a low cost for fuel energy program. That will really encourage energy conservation.

  5. In regards to the comment made that Obama doesn’t mention transit, this is from his “Plan to make America a global energy leader”

    Via our roundup of the dems…half of which have quit since then!

    “Build More Livable and Sustainable Communities: Over the longer term, we know that the amount of fuel we will use is directly related to our land use decisions and development patterns, much of which have been organized around the principle of cheap gasoline. Barack Obama believes that we must move beyond our simple fixation of investing so many of our transportation dollars in serving drivers and that we must make more investments that make it easier for us to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives.”

    “Reform Federal Transportation Funding: As president, Barack Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account. Obama will build upon his efforts in the Senate to ensure that more Metropolitan Planning Organizations create policies to incentivize greater bicycle and pedestrian usage of roads and sidewalks, and he will also re-commit federal resources to public mass transportation projects across the country…”

    “Level Employer Incentives for Driving and Public Transit:…Obama will reform the tax code to make benefits for driving and public transit or ridesharing equal.”

  6. Excellent catch, Steve…

    I even have some of that language in a post I linked to above from my streetheat blog and I was very unartful in how I phrased that sentance. I was trying to draw a comparison between Clinton and Obama. I hadn’t seen his “Plan to Make America an Energy Leader,” and was going off of his “Plan for a Clean Energy Future” which has the first and third paragraphs of what you quoted, but not the second.

  7. Obama might as well support Segways powered by cold fusion for all it matters.

    No serious candidate could win with a platform of carbon taxes, carbon emissions criteria for transpo and expanded federal involvement in land use. This is probably why Al Gore didn’t run. He would have had to dump climate change — which gets single digit poll numbers as an election priority.

  8. Here are some items from a Hillary speech given after the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse. Damien would’ve had to dig deep to find it but there’s more transportation policy here than in the materials he looked at:


    “Well my point today is – [infrastructure] is a crisis. It’s a silent crisis. It’s a crisis with the potential of not only death and injury, property loss and other kinds of dangers and inconveniences, but it is imperative that we address this crisis for our economy and for the kind country we want to be in the 21st Century….

    Every day, millions of Americans inch their way through bumper-to-bumper traffic. They drive over structurally deficient bridges. Millions board buses and subways which the federal Department of Transportation has deemed poor, substandard, or merely adequate….

    And every single hour, our goods are shipped on under-serviced, overburdened railways. We’ve had a rash of railway accidents in New York that I have followed very closely and worked both with the state and with the railroad companies to try and remedy. But derailments are becoming more and more common. Goods travel through unprotected, overcrowded seaports or through waterways filled with broken locks….

    And we know all too well that the results can be tragic. Not only bridge collapse in Minneapolis and the levies collapse in New Orleans, but the collapse of the Big Dig tunnel ceiling, and the highway overpass that collapsed last week in California….

    And keep in mind, the bridge in Minnesota, that the Mayor use to live near, was one of nearly 600,000 bridges across America — more than 60,000 of those bridges are in need of serious repair….

    Did you know that those hours we spend sitting in traffic cost as much as $170 billion a year in wasted time, fuel, productivity and damage to our environment? Those railroads carry half of all freight not carried by air. Those waterways carry roughly one-sixth of our inter-city freight. And those seaports are our gateway to international trade. When there are shutdowns or delays or a lack of capacity, America’s businesses and workers pay the price….

    But instead of investing in the infrastructure of the future and growing our economy, we continue to make do. We patch and repair. We ignore the advice of our engineers, economists, businesses, unions, community leaders. We try to build our children’s future with our grandparents’ infrastructure. And we are falling further and further behind….

    It’s time to stop asking how we can afford to fix our infrastructure – and start asking how we can afford not to. It’s time to ask ourselves, what if we could shave minutes – even hours – off our commutes? What if we could shave hours – even days – off our shipping times? What if our ports could send and receive tons of additional goods each week, safely? What if we had public transit system and a rail system that dramatically reduced our reliance on foreign oil, and our carbon dioxide emissions, and our smog and air pollution?…

    It requires a smart, comprehensive plan. And it requires that we deal not only with repairing and expanding our infrastructure, but solving the problems that are created by infrastructure – you know, congestion, urban sprawl, environmental degradation….

    We’ve got to set that priority list. And I want an independent group to do that. My second point in my plan to rebuild America involves investing an additional $1 billion in our intercity passenger rail system, which carries 23 million passengers a year, links more than 500 communities, connects communities with airports, city bus systems, providing additional convenience for passengers. And with gas price very unpredictable and traffic worse than ever, airline travel riddled with overbooking, overcrowding and delays – train travel is actually becoming increasingly appealing.

    But there’s very little federal funding for these rail systems. They treat them as primarily a state responsibility and I think that’s the wrong approach. Train travel protects our environment. It reduces our dependence on foreign oil and helps alleviate congestion. One of the reasons that some of the Asian countries and some of the European countries are really make progress against us economically is that they have heavy investments in trains. And those trains are high-speed trains. They move quickly both people and goods and this should be a national priority.

    Third, I think we also need to more to build up our intra-city transportation systems – the subways and buses that comprise our public transit systems.

    In 2006, Americans took more than 10 billion trips on local public transportation. And those systems serve as a lifeline for so many low and middle-income Americans and for many senior citizens who are no longer able to drive.

    Public transportation is also one of the best strategies for protecting the environment. Believe it or not, emissions from road vehicles accounted for more than 50% of air pollution in America. If we just increased our public transportation from 5% to 10%, we’d reduce our reliance on foreign oil by roughly 40%, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 25%, and reduce smog-causing nitrogen oxide emissions by about one third.

    But despite the benefits of public transit, today, 84% of public transit spending goes toward maintaining existing capacity – only just 16% toward expanding our systems. I want to change that ratio. So I want to increase federal funding for public transit by $1.5 billion a year.

    I want to get those funds to communities committed to using them effectively – communities committed to avoiding sprawl by locating homes, jobs and stores nearby, reducing the need for unnecessary car trips. Over the next 25 years, many of the buildings in which we live, work, and shop will be built or rebuilt. So today, we have a unique opportunity to encourage sustainable development….

    I will want to make it a national priority to confront the growing national problem of congestion. You know, right now, traffic has pretty much taken its place alongside death and taxes as one of those things you just can’t avoid.

    And between 1993 and 2003, the amount of time Americans spent in traffic delays increased more than 50% – and gallons of fuel wasted increased nearly 80%. If current trends continue, by 2013, moderately dense areas will experience the same kind of traffic problems we see in gridlock in New York City or Chicago or LA.

    And the rise of communities that are further and further away means longer commutes. And when you think about wit the Internet we need to be figuring out how to promote more telecommuting. I think we should of course increase what we do to be smart about congestion, but why can’t we be smart about giving more people the opportunity to work from home? Especially mothers who are balancing family and work – because right now we have good evidence that it’s actually good for productivity but there’s a reluctance to do it. That’s true in government, that’s true in the private sector and I think we need to support initiatives that promote telecommuting. Maybe not five days a week, maybe three days a week but anything we can do to try to limit the traffic congestion actually increases productivity and helps our environment.

    I think that when we look at technology we don’t realize that today we can collect real-time information on road and travel conditions and we can actually detect traffic density and adjust their traffic signals and post the information on electronic road signs to warn drivers of congestion ahead.

    We can have more efficient electronic toll systems, and make sure that we have a good camera system high-traffic areas to monitor accidents and speed the deployment of ambulances and tow trucks.

    San Diego even has reversible toll lanes, so when traffic is much heavier in one direction than another, they can reverse a lane and ease the congestion. So let’s use technology as our friend to get us out of these traffic jams that so many of us experience….

    From attached policy paper:

    Public Transit

    Increase federal funding for public transit by $1.5 billion per year. Increased public transit usage is arguably the best strategy for ameliorating the energy and environmental costs of transportation. As energy costs rise, more people will rely on public transportation. Today, only 5% of Americans commute by public transit, but doubling that figure could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 25%. Public transit is also critically important to people who live in urban areas and rely on buses and trains for travel to work and school. Moreover, as the population ages, an increasing number of people will need public transit as their ability to drive diminishes. Hillary will increase federal investment in public transit by $1.5 billion per year to ensure needed capacity expansions and service level improvements.

    Link federal public transit funds to local land use policies that encourage residential developments that maximize public transit usage. Over the next 25 years, a large percentage of the buildings we live, work, and shop in will be rebuilt or newly built. This presents a significant opportunity for the federal government to encourage sensible residential and commercial development that are linked to, and encourage, public transit usage. Local areas seeking large federal investments in public transit are already required to have land-use plans and policies that make investing in a high-density transit system worthwhile. Today, these requirements are focused mainly on commercial developments and not enough on residential considerations. Hillary will encourage the sort of dense residential concentrations needed to support public transit systems by better linking public transit funding with residential land-use policies. This will help to discourage sprawl and fight congestion.

    Intercity Passenger Rail

    Invest an additional $1 billion in intercity passenger rail systems. In the 21st Century, intercity passenger rail should be a viewed as a critical component of the nation’s transportation system. It is an environmentally efficient alternative to highway driving and short flights; it relieves congestion on roads and airports; reduces the emission of automotive pollutants; and it stimulates economic growth by linking metropolitan areas. States have been left to pursue intercity rail projects with only modest federal support. Hillary believes that greater federal involvement is needed to maximize the potential of this transportation mode. She will increase federal investment in intercity passenger rail by $1 billion over 5 years in order to help finance capital projects. These investments are in addition to those made in Amtrak.

    Addressing Congestion

    Increase the budget for the Department of Transportation’s congestion reduction programs by approximately 50% to $600 million annually. Federal support for innovative state and local congestion-reduction initiatives flows principally through two programs: Urban Partnerships and the Value Pricing Pilot Program. The combined budget for these two programs is approximately $400 million. Hillary will increase the budgets by 50% to $600 million annually to enable the programs to provide greater support to a larger number of cities and states devising innovative solutions to congestion.

  9. Judging from the quotes above:

    Clinton is supporting a grab-bag of different policies, including more funding for public transit but also including more technology to increase automobile traffic flow.

    Obama is more focused on alternative transportation and smart growth.

    However, that may just be because the quote from Clinton is longer.

  10. Truth is they are both urban Democrats and are clearly more attuned to mass transit issues than the alternatives. I support Clinton, strictly because she has the greater chance of winning and she is a New Yorker (sort of). There hasn’t been a NY President since FDR and he worked out pretty well. He even posts on this blog. No one who wants to get elected can support the one thing that can really improve the air and the streets, fuel taxes. I just said above that credit should go to anyone who would. Credit maybe, but victory would probably not follow credit.

    I’m not any more concerned about the clean coal fantasy than I am about the ethanol fantasy and I don’t hold any of that against either of them. Not like they are that serious, they just want to get elected, and we need them to.

    Much like the Iraq war votes. The entire country wanted revenge after 911, good policy was not on the table. So Hillary voted for the war, Obama would have too if the Illinois State Senate would have had a vote.

    The way our system works is you try to get someone elected after they go through the torture of a 14 month campaign and then try to squeeze some good policy out of them. If you want platforms that predict policy you will have to wait for a parliamentary form of government in the US.

  11. This is the first I’m hearing of StreetHeat becoming a branch of Streetsblog, and Damien proves he is up to the task. Congrats! With any luck, a strong web presence will ultimately help us get that bike boulevard on 4th built, and even allow for a bike-friendly downtown as certain politicos are mumbling about.

  12. “There hasn’t been a NY President since FDR and he worked out pretty well.”

    Actually FDR’s New Deal introduced the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) among other government programs that heavily employed people through road building. According to the book Asphalt Nation, by Jane Holtz Kay, from 1930 to 1940 surface road mileage doubled to 1,367,000 in the US. The WPA alone was responsible for the creation of 650,000 miles of new road. According to Kay, mass transit only received 1/10th of the WPA funds that went to road improvement. Rail remained privately funded and any money from the government was a loan whereas roads got government funds for free. And they say transit is subsidized.

    Bottom line, FDR and the New Deal did a great deal to defeat the final blow to urban rail travel in the US and to set up the necessary infrastructure that defined the car centric nation that would rise from the Depression.

  13. “The Republican Eisenhower contributed his share with the Federal Aid to Highways Act…”

    While the 40,000 miles of interstate freeway are a drop in the bucket of the 650,000 miles of road created by the New Deal, I whole heartedly agree. The Federal Aid to Highways Act surely wasn’t a very small government act, no?

    It just pains me, as Libertarian, to see other Libertarians and Conservatives call mass transit unfairly subsidized when the original PRIVATE urban transit of this country was killed off by an interventionist government that subsidized the car culture. Hell, once you have 1.3 million miles of paved road for free, why not get a car and pay a bit of gas taxes. So sad for those rail companies that had to buy their own right of ways, build their own rails, and charge their customers fairly for the cost.

    So of course today, mass transit is subsidized and underutilized, nothing more than welfare in most parts. All the while the car culture is choking on it’s own exhaust fumes and our leaders/potential leaders can’t even see the reasons why. You gotta admit it’s pretty sad.

  14. “It just pains me, as Libertarian, to see other Libertarians and Conservatives call mass transit unfairly subsidized when the original PRIVATE urban transit of this country was killed off by an interventionist government that subsidized the car culture.”

    Hey, there’s someone who gets it. As late as the early 1960s mass transit companies were paying lots of taxes while taxes were paying to expand the roads.

    I have imagined an alternative history, if the government hadn’t got involved. You stil would have had motor cars, and people still would have wanted them. And you still would have had urban areas expanding beyond municipal borders.

    My guess is you would have had private highways. To make a profit, they would have been toll roads with less capacity. And to make the most of that capacity, you would have had…congestion pricing. Only the rich would have driven at rush hour. The rest would have been on buses.

    Moreover, the government subsidized the railroads by giving them land near the tracks. If it did the same for roads, you would have had dense towns clustered around the exits, built by consortiums associated with the roadbuilders. They would have wanted to maximize the use of land they owned. And they would have had to have offered a bus service to city jobs to get people to their towns.

    You would have had the equivalent of the NY area railroad suburbs.

  15. It’s sad to read the Angus, but not surprising. I do think Ron Paul is quite knowledgeable and aware of many of the hypocrisies in our current climate, but your link proves that even he ignores the reality of subsidization. I’d love to ask him how he feels knowing the roads he drives on are the product of massive government intervention and subsidy. And how long was the NYC subway a private entity? Till the early 1950’s I believe, at least two systems. I wonder if their eventual bankruptcy and transfer to a publicly funded operation had anything to do with the unfair competition from a growing subsidized car culture? Think about it, by the time many of the railways were going bankrupt there were nearly 1.5 million miles of paved roads provided for free by the government. Imagine the rail system we’d have if the government had paid equally for road and rail.

    What also gets me about car culture as a Libertarian is the fact that we Libertarians are supposed to appalled by government coercion and and regulation, yet so many libertarians embrace a car culture which has brought an ENORMOUS amount of both of those things into what should be a natural right – mobility. The car culture forces me to be tested, registered, photographed, and have all my personal information stored in a government database before I’m allowed to move around. I must be of a certain age and I must adhere to many rules. I’m forced to buy insurance from a private company. If I fail I face fines or jail time from the state. Such freedom this car culture brings us, no? I can move around freely in this country as long as the government permits me and I follow the rule they set forth.

    I wonder how many people in the era of the private interurban steetcars had to get transit riders licenses?

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