Who is the Livable Streets Candidate?

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It’s Super Duper Tuesday, primary election day here in New York. If you’re still mulling your options and trying to figure out who the best candidate on Livable Streets issues is, Damien Newton of Street Heat L.A. and the editor of soon-to-be-launched Streetsblog Los Angeles, dug up the positions of the Democrats and Republicans for us. Grist and the Los Angeles Times have also done some nice candidate round-ups.

Also, last Thursday, NYU’s Rudin Center hosted a presidential candidates forum on transportation and infrastructure here in New York City. I was there. Unfortunately, none of the candidates showed up. Four Democratic candidates sent proxies and the Republicans didn’t even bother to do that.

Realistically, New York City probably doesn’t merit a non-fundraising candidate visit towards the end of a hotly contested national primary. Still, it was hard not to come away from the forum with the feeling that there is no "livable streets candidate" in 2008. The issues we talk about here on Streetsblog — as important as they are in people’s daily lives and at the local political level — simply aren’t a big part of the national policy debate just yet. There were hints, however, that the candidates are starting to pay attention.

Here’s what the candidates’ reps had to say, in order of appearance:

Frank McArdle, a senior advisor to the General Contractors Association of New York, spoke on behalf of Senator Hillary Clinton. "We fundamentally need to change the way we look at transportation in the U.S.," McArdle started. "Road space is not a free good. Oil is not cheap." Palms pressed in front of his chest as if in prayer, he continued. "There’s no way we can deal with the consequences of global warming and energy security unless we allow people to get out of their cars and off of airplanes. The system is broken and she recognizes it." Clinton, who made a big speech on transportation policy after the Minneapolis bridge collapse, would spend an additional $1.5 billion per year on "public transportation," McArlde said.

Yet, the visionary talk of fundamental change came to a screeching halt as soon as the issue of congestion pricing came up. Hillary wants to make sure that "congestion pricing is not simply a tax on the working middle class," McArlde said. "When we relieve congestion what are we doing it for? So ‘Beemer’ drivers can go faster?" Before implementing congestion pricing we need to make sure reliable transit alternatives are in place, otherwise we’ll have "crowding on the buses in Douglaston in Bayside." Bayside, eh? Perhaps that’s a hint as to where the Senator is getting her talking points on this particular issue.

David Eisenbach, a media and politics professor at Columbia University, represented former Senator Mike Gravel. He delivered an early 20th century history lecture on General Motors’ destruction of urban trolley systems and the CIA’s overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. We don’t need "a mass transit bill," Eisenbach said. We need to get "a look at Dick Cheney’s notes from meetings with oil executives."

Doug Biviano, a civil engineer from Brooklyn, spoke on behalf of Congressman and former Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich. He noted that 45,000 Americans die on U.S. roadways annually, adding up to "fifteen 9/11’s every single year." The solution? "We need to understand the interconnectedness of everything, make peace the organizing principle of our society and make transportation policy sing like the gospel."

David Narefsky, a Chicago lawyer specializing in infrastructure financing, spoke on behalf of Senator Barack Obama. He too started with a history lesson. President Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate Act of 1956 was "a transformational moment" and "the last time the U.S. had a unified vision for transportation," he said. "We need to make investing in infrastructure, once again, a national priority." Narefsky was light on specifics. Obama believes we need "world class infrastructure" and "21st century technologies."

Obama, Narefsky said, has supported federal funding for Amtrak, wants to see the development of high speed rail, is "a strong supporter of smart growth land use policies" and believes we need to "provide local governments resources they need to address sprawl." How do we pay for it? Obama "has not come out in support of a gas tax," Narefsky said. He prefers a "more direct imposition on users," putting a price on vehicle miles traveled rather than gasoline.

Photo: Ultraclay / Flickr

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