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2009 Transportation Bill

How Can Transit Backers Sway Conservatives? Oberstar Joins the Debate

2:47 PM EST on February 2, 2010

In the years before partisan warfare became the norm in Washington, transportation tended to unite both ends of the ideological spectrum. Can rationality return to infrastructure policy debates that have become subsumed by culture clashes between cyclists and drivers, urbanists and suburbanites -- and, of course, Democrats and Republicans?

6a00d83454714d69e20120a56823e7970b_320wi.jpgHighways and transit, side by side in Berlin. (Photo: Streetsblog.net)

That question brought House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) to a small meeting room on Capitol Hill today as conservative transit advocate Bill Lind engaged assistant transportation secretary Polly Trottenberg, Reconnecting America president John Robert Smith, and urban developer Chris Leinberger in a spirited debate.

Lind focused on the themes of Moving Minds, a book he co-wrote with the late conservative icon Paul Weyrich to debunk many of the anti-transit, pro-roads myths trotted out by Randal O'Toole, Wendell Cox, and other pundits on the right.

"The way we got to America's national motto being 'drive or die' ... is not because of any sort of free market," Lind said today. "We got here because of massive government subsidization of one competitor and the taxing of another."

But the dialogue got interesting when Oberstar arrived, a cast on his arm after taking a spill on a sheet of ice. He shared an anecdote about former French President Charles de Gaulle's support for rail before hitting a familiar note, one best described as respectfully critical of the Obama administration.

"Political will -- that's what we're lacking today and have been lacking for a long time," Oberstar said, urging fellow policymakers "to reinvest in a system that moves great numbers of people at the lowest cost."

In a direct communication to Trottenberg, the White House's representative in the room, he added that he stands ready to take up a new federal transportation bill "whenever this administration can find its political will to support a financing mechanism."

Trottenberg took the floor next, acknowledging "frustration" on the part of U.S. DOT staff as they seek to build political support for the difficult choices needed to raise revenue for large-scale reform. Particularly in the Senate, she said, "a lot of members do the math [and conclude that] 'it's valuable for me to fight for every single dollar to go to highway funds'," regardless of the impact that choice would have on their constituents' future or the common good.

But the participants in today's event appeared to agree that the message in Lind's book, as well as the national revival of streetcar projects, would help smooth over the polarization that has come to characterize American transportation decision-making.

"There's a strong rural message in everything we're saying," noted Smith, the former Republican mayor of Meridian, Mississippi. "When gas gets to be four dollars a gallon, our people have no other options."

(After hearing Smith speak about the small-town potential of transit, Oberstar extended a most congressional compliment: "Could you be on loan to our committee? Or to the Senate ...")

And Lind made perhaps the most cogent argument in favor of abandoning transportation dichotomies such as urban versus suburban. "The rural-urban split is something that anti-transit forces try to exploit on the state legislature level" to defeat transit funding proposals, he observed.

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