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Livable Streets

Flashback: Obama Once Led Push for ‘Complete Streets’

2:26 PM PDT on May 28, 2009

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.

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