House Puts Transportation in Partisan Crossfire

The U.S. House transportation bill released last week by Rep. John Mica contained a number of provisions that immediately alarmed transit and smart growth advocates and their Democratic supporters on Capitol Hill. The bill would cut subsidies to Amtrak, eliminate dedicated money for bike and pedestrian programs, and scrap guaranteed funding for mass transit.

Throw in controversial plans to pay for some of the legislation with domestic oil drilling, and America has, yet again, a partisan dogfight. Transportation, though, is supposed to be different. There is a long history in Washington of bipartisan bills around which otherwise squabbling politicians could always join together while singing “there is no such thing in America as Democratic bridges or Republican highways.”

“Some of your longest serving senators and congressmen are not proud of the dysfunctional quality of the government at this time,” said John Robert Smith, the president of Reconnecting America and a former 16-year Republican mayor of Meridian, Mississippi. “They remember a time when they could craft a deal on transportation if they never agreed on anything else.”

Now, it seems, there is such a thing as a Republican piece of infrastructure and a Democratic one. The division looks like this: Republicans support highways and auto-oriented infrastructure, while Democrats are for bike and pedestrian amenities, rail, and mass transit. (This week a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee spokesman had to clarify this week that “Republicans are not anti-transit”).

Ray LaHood, a Republican Obama appointee at the head of the Department of Transportation, has called this the most partisan transportation bill he’s ever seen.

This political polarization by transportation mode is mostly unique to Washington (or, even more locally, to the House of Representatives). But Americans, by and large, tell pollsters that they want all of these things: roads, mass transit, regional rail, and bike/pedestrian infrastructure. They want, at the very least, choices in how to get around.

In a 2010 survey from the group Transportation for America, 82 percent of voters said the U.S. would benefit from expanded public transportation (and this includes 79 percent of rural voters). Sixty-six percent said they would like more transportation options, and 73 percent said they feel they “have no choice” but to drive as much as they do.

“To me, the odd person out in this is Washington,” said Geoffrey Anderson, the president and CEO of the advocacy nonprofit Smart Growth America. Increasingly, he adds, those survey numbers hold steady across urban, suburban, and rural communities. “At the district level, the community level, nationally, normal people are all saying that they want this stuff.”

Over the last decade, local transit ballot initiatives – for instance, raising sales taxes to fund transit improvements – have passed 70 percent of the time on average. And this includes (at 77 percent) initiatives put to a vote during the 2010 midterm that otherwise tilted the country in a more conservative direction.

So if it doesn’t reflect voter sentiment, what explains the partisan division in Washington? Surely, no good can come of a climate where Republican and Democratic congressmen are talking about distinctly different modes of transportation — as if they competed with instead of complemented each other — when “infrastructure” comes up.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly the political culture that has infected even the most banal water-cooler conversation. Congressmen, by nature of the job, are further removed from constituents and their priorities than mayors, who have no problem agreeing on these same questions. And the economic reality — particularly around the unsustainable Highway Trust Fund — has forced politicians to stake out priorities when there isn’t enough money to pay for everything.

“That has turned the transportation discussion into a revenue-raising discussion, which is a tax issue, which is inherently a [Democratic] and [Republican] political issue at this point,” Anderson said. “It wouldn’t be so partisan if there weren’t the issue of how do you pay for it?”

And here is where the transportation modes come in. Despite voters’ clamor for choices in every corner of the country, the stereotype persists in Washington that trains are for blue urbanites and roads for rural red states (which is to say nothing of bike riding).

“Sometimes I’ll be with a senator talking about public transit and its importance, and he’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t have any public transit in my state.’ I say if you have a van that takes your veterans to the capital for all of their free health care, that’s public transit,” Smith said. “There are elected officials who think when we say ‘public transit,’ we mean the metro system in either Washington, Chicago, New York, or San Francisco. And they fail to realize that how we move the elderly and veterans and those who are less-than-abled — all that is public transit.”

Don’t even get Smith started on what will happen as the baby boomers age.

“You don’t want us all on the interstate highway system,” he said.