Columnist: Tea Party Politics Imperils Transportation Bill

February 20, 2012
by Neal Peirce

A wildly imbalanced transportation bill, supporting highways but imperiling federal support for public transit systems, for biking, walking or livable communities, moved onto the floor of the U.S. House last week.

The measure would devote the entire federal highway trust fund to roads, terminating a 30-year-old agreement, made with President Reagan's approval, to apportion 20 percent of the gas tax-supported fund to public transportation. Transit would be invited to compete for general fund congressional appropriations each year - a scary prospect in a time of deep, impending cuts to the federal budget, with a requirement to show an "offset" in other federal spending for each transit dollar appropriated.

Transit supporters are outraged. Transit use, they argue, is rising nationwide. But many local systems are in fiscal jeopardy as more people - new urbanites as well as low-income people - rely on buses and subways to reach work, schools and doctors. The bill even halts assured funds for Safe Routes to School, a program promoting safe walking and biking trails. 

And it's not just bleeding hearts lining up against this bill. Opposition also comes from 75 national organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AARP and AASHTO - the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, historically known as the "big roads" crowd.

So why is the Republican House leadership backing this bill? There's a two-word explanation: tea party. "This is a gesture to the tea party Republicans who hold a balance of power in the Republican caucus," asserts Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), an advocate for biking and other livability agendas. "It is part of a pattern," he asserts, "where some of these people are agitating at the local level against rational land-use planning and zoning." 

The connection seems undeniable. The last year has seen tea party activists across the country storming community planning meetings, raising angry voices against efforts by citizen groups or local or regional governments to promote smart growth, density, rail service, walking trails or other amenities. Each such initiative, they claim, is a sinister plot, somehow linked to Agenda 21, a 20-year-old United Nations resolution that suggested ways to promote sustainability in cities worldwide.

Last month, the Republican National Committee climbed on board with a resolution declaring: "The United Nations Agenda 21 plan of radical so-called 'sustainable development' views the American way of private property ownership, single family homes, private car ownership and individual travel choices, and privately owned farms - all as destructive to the environment."

A top target of the extremists is ICLEI USA-Local Governments for Sustainability and its network of 550 local governments. ICLEI's straightforward mission is to help communities define their own goals and plans to protect clean air and water, increase energy independence and reduce their carbon footprints. Its president and board chair, Patrick Henry Hays, mayor of Little Rock, Ark., says the work is more vital than ever as communities wrestle with record-breaking droughts, floods and other natural disasters. But tea party activists show up at community meetings to demonize ICLEI as an Agenda 21 plot to steal Americans' rights. 

Sadly, the ideological fog created by the tea party and its mostly older, white constituency is obscuring important issues about how America musters the dollars and political will to maintain (or restore) a quality transportation system.

There's a school of thought, represented by transportation expert Kenneth Orski, that says it's a splendid idea to sever transit funding from the Highway Trust Fund: "It would restore the program's lost sense of purpose and focus trust fund resources on what they always were meant to do - preserve and renew the nation's prized asset, its interstate highway system."

But another transportation veteran, former New Jersey Transit and Amtrak head Thomas Downs, replies that tossing the transit constituency out of the decades-old trust fund alliance is a high-risk move. The fund's base - gas use - is in danger: In January, motor fuel use was down 7.3 percent from 2011. For 19 years, trust fund backers haven't been able to persuade Congress to raise the gas tax from its current rate of 18.4 cents per gallon. "So they'll drain their bank account to the bottom, cutting off their closest allies - and then," Downs suggests, "whistle past the graveyard hoping for large-scale expansion in gas use in the future."

What's required for the long run?

First, we can hope, a burn-out of the tea party extremism, just as the anti-immigrant "Know Nothing" movement of the mid-1800s finally dissipated.

But second, we need courageous leaders - national, state and local - to assert that the United States does need a world-class transportation system, combining road, rail and air, and based on sane low-carbon energy alternatives serving accessible, livable, walkable communities. And that we're willing to pay for it. 

Ideology aside, what's wrong with that?

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

© 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.