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.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Rep. LaTourette Tells Transit Advocates to Ask Congress for What They Need

|
Transit officials spent the day on Capitol Hill yesterday, meeting with Congressional offices as part of the American Public Transportation Association’s legislative conference. Transportation Committee Chair John Mica suggested they ask members for a six-year bill. Secretary Ray LaHood urged them to ask for support for President Obama’s “big, bold vision” for transportation. Rep. Steve […]

Introducing Tanya Snyder, Streetsblog’s New National Reporter

|
You may have noticed a new byline popping up on Streetsblog lately, and it’s time to finally make it official: We’re pleased to announce the arrival of Tanya Snyder as our new reporter tracking the national transportation policy beat. Before joining Streetsblog, Tanya covered Congress for Pacifica Radio’s Washington Bureau and for public radio stations […]

We’re Hiring: Lead Streetsblog’s National Coverage

|
Editor’s note: Our search for a national reporter to take over Streetsblog Capitol Hill wouldn’t be complete without putting out a call to the audience with the greatest passion for livable streets and sustainable transportation policy — our readers. We are looking for a talented professional journalist, eager to make an impact, to take over […]

Oberstar’s Transportation Bill: Download it in Full

|
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar’s (D-MN) new federal bill, which he previewed Wednesday despite pushback from the Obama administration, is officially out. You can download the 775-page legislative text right here, thanks to Transportation for America. Streetsblog Capitol Hill is thumbing through it right now to provide highlights later today.

Complete Streets Provision Eliminated From Final Transpo Bill

|
Transportation for America, the big-tent coalition for transportation reform, tends to be careful about the statements it puts out. Its folks are diplomatic, since they work with both sides on the Hill and a wide variety of coalition members. Yesterday, as details of the conference report were leaking out, they wanted to read the whole […]

The 2009 Capitol Hill Streetsies: And the Nominees Are …

|
The year-end Streetsie Awards are a time-honored tradition at Streetsblog — check out New York’s first round of honorees, hot off the presses today — and Capitol Hill certainly has provided plenty of material. Without further ado, here are the nominees for Washington’s brightest and bleakest moments of 2009. Winners will be announced on New […]