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.

  • Chris in Sacramento

    The House Transportation & Infrastructure is expected to soon release its draft transportation bill. We’ll then see if the Matsui-Harkin complete streets language is included. If it is, it stands a really good chance of being part of the final package. If it’s not, it’s going to be an uphill battle to insert it. The National Complete Streets Coalition is doing a phenomenal job of coordinating this vital effort, and readers here may wish to toss them a nickel or two.

  • Scott

    This post looks incomplete; I was expecting to see a rebuttal follow the comment by Kit Bond. Is the Senator wrong about what the amendment says, or is that right and you think there SHOULD be a bike lane from Leftover Shoes to Podunk Junction, or… what?

  • john

    MoDOT has been a constant agent working against Complete Streets:

    MoDOT has a long history of being against pedestrians, cyclists and safer traveling designs: http://mobikefed.org/2007/11/missouri-dumps-its-bike-leader.php

  • Chris in Sacramento

    The proposed federal complete streets legislation would provide state and metro agencies with significant discretion and includes explicit reference to the different applications of complete streets principles in urban, suburban or rural contexts.

    For example, a rural highway such as the one referenced by Sen. Bond could likely be made “complete” with a shoulder* that accommodates bicyclng and emergency walking. It’s very unlikely that a two-way, separated path– which, indeed, would involve expensive ROW purchases, planning, design etc– would either be mandated by the law or subseqent implementation guidance coming from the FHWA.

    Shoulders on rural highways not only benefit bicyclists but also are a place where slow agricultural vehicles can go to be passed by faster vehicles and, of course, shoulders are very useful for disabled vehicles.

  • Scott

    Thanks Chris from Sacramento. Much more informative than just calling the claim “tired and false.” What you describe sounds perfectly reasonable.

  • Note that we’ll be hosting a Congressional briefing this Friday, “Complete Streets: Integrating Safety and Livability into the Next Transportation Bill,” at 10 AM in the Rayburn building. More info:



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