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Democratic Platform’s Scarce Words on Transportation Fail to Inspire

President Obama spent Labor Day touting his rescue of the U.S. auto industry, and today, like a chorus of backup singers, the Big Three automakers posted double-digit sales increases in perfect unison. Meanwhile, the Democrats kicked off their convention in Charlotte.

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Delegates will vote today on the Democratic platform, released late last night. The platform doesn’t say much new about transportation. Chest-thumping over the comeback of the U.S. automakers: check. Patting themselves on the back for nearly doubling fuel economy in American cars: check. But then the Democrats got a little sloppy, starting with: “We will give our businesses access to newer roads and airports, and faster railroads and Internet access.”

"Newer roads" leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Newer than what? Brand new, as in, the roads didn't exist before? Is “newness” the most important feature in a road? Well-maintained, sure. But ribbon-cuttings aren't something to shoot for.

While the Obama administration has a solid record of policy innovation -- think TIGER and the Sustainable Communities Initiative -- the platform has little to say about ideas like investing in green transportation, or saving families money by linking transportation and land use planning, or even controlling the costs of infrastructure by focusing on maintenance. The 40-page document is not meant to be a detailed policy description, but it's worth noting where the Democrats stop short in this summary of the party's principles.

The biggest chunk of transpo talk comes in a section titled, "Out-Building the Rest of the World," in which the Democrats don't stray very far from generic support for infrastructure investment:

We support long-term investments in our infrastructure. Roads, bridges, rail and public transit systems, airports, ports, and sewers are all critical to economic growth, as they enable businesses to grow. That’s why President Obama and Democrats in Congress have enacted infrastructure investments that will sustain our Highway Trust Fund and provide states, U.S. territories, and communities with two years of funding to build needed infrastructure. These investments are critical for putting Americans back to work and strengthening America’s transportation system to grow our economy. The President has proposed to go substantially further, including a significant up-front investment in our infrastructure followed by sustained increases in investment paid for with part of the savings from winding down our overseas wars, together with reforms that will better leverage government dollars and target significant projects. We will continue to partner with local communities to support their sustainable development.

As far as I can tell, the Democrats have done exactly nothing to sustain the Highway Trust Fund. They’ve fought for more investments to come out of it, but nothing new to go into it – an inherently unsustainable situation. In order to pass a transportation bill, they went out looking for pennies between the couch cushions and found enough to patch together a pay-for, but the Trust Fund is still vulnerable and insufficient. The Democrats have been unwilling to talk seriously about increasing revenues into the Fund, whether by indexing the gas tax to inflation, giving it a one-time boost, or shifting to a vehicles miles traveled fee.

The platform also refers to the president’s plan for a $50 billion “down payment” for infrastructure, an idea he first floated nearly two years ago. But the document merely says that the president “has proposed” this – not that the party plans to fight for it. Indeed, the plan never got much traction, and the infrastructure funding was never the Democrats’ favorite part of the jobs bill it was later rolled into (which was voted down).

The platform dedicates the Democrats to “fight for immediate investments for highways, transit, rail, and aviation and for the creation of a national infrastructure bank.” The party could have used resolve like that in recent Congressional sessions, during which key Democrats, like Senator Barbara Boxer, were lukewarm at best on the infrastructure bank idea. The platform doesn’t get into how to prioritize different modes of transportation.

A more specific and inspiring message was delivered at the convention by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who’s chairing the events. He spoke in an interview about the advances his city is making not just to build transit but to finance it. He also explained how he became convinced that an expanded TIFIA program could support public transportation investments all around the country, and he talked up the city’s multiplying bike lanes.

In the platform itself, Villaraigosa's party does mention support for active transportation, but not in the transportation section. Under "Ensuring Safety and Quality of Life," it reads, "We will continue to partner with local communities to support their sustainable developments such as passenger rail, bicycle and pedestrian paths, and other projects to support livable cities." And under "Families," the document adds, "With prevention and treatment initiatives on obesity and public health, Democrats are leading the way on supporting healthier, more physically active families and healthy children" -- which one could also connect to bicycling and walking.

Given the administration's support for livability initiatives, it's reassuring that the Democrats at least included this one line, and the mention of "bicycle and pedestrian paths" seems to be more specific than any reference to active transportation in the party's platforms from 2000, 2004, and 2008.

Those previous Democratic platforms, while they don't call out bicycling and walking, do have some other inspiring moments. The 2008 platform pledges to "invest in public transportation," "expand transportation options for low-income communities," and "make cities greener and more livable by...taking smart growth principles into account when designing transportation." And back in 2000, the platform supported high-speed rail and "new grants to Amtrak and the states for improving and expanding passenger rail routes and corridors." This year's delegates could have cribbed from those past documents.

When it comes to the Democrats' biggest transportation successes, this year's platform is curiously silent. In addition to giving TIGER the silent treatment, there's no mention of how Democrats (and some Republicans) beat back the House GOP leadership's attack on transit earlier this year.

While it's a far cry from the Republicans' highways-and-fossil-fuels transportation platform, the few words the Democratic platform devotes to transportation still fails to present a compelling vision for the country.

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