For the time being, battles over health care and energy seem likely to occupy the attention of both the Obama administration and its critics. Yet although now barely on the radar, there may be another, equally critical conflict developing over how Americans live and travel.
Right now this potential flash point has been relegated to the back burner, as Congress is likely to put any major transportation spending initiative on hold for at least a year, and perhaps longer. This also may be a symptom of mounting concerns over the deficit. Financing major changes in transportation, for example, would probably require higher federal fuel taxes, which would not fly amid a weak economy.
These delays could prove a blessing to the administration, providing a pause from indulging in yet another policy lurch that might thrill the “progressive” urban left but infuriate much of the country. Initial House proposals on transportation have sought to cut dramatically the share of federal gas taxes — paid by drivers — going to roads while sending more to already heavily subsidized transit. Another large chunk of transport spending would go to a very expensive, and geographically limited, high-speed-rail network.
This kind of radical shift reflects the preferences of ideologues within the administration. President Barack Obama has clustered an impressive array of “smart growth” devotees around him, including Housing and Urban Development Undersecretary Ron Sims, an early climate change “evangelist,” Transportation Undersecretary for Policy Roy Kienitz and the Environmental Protection Agency’s John Frece. Their priority is not better roads for suburbanites but, as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood put it, to “coerce” Americans out of their cars and into a denser, more transit-dominated future.
This approach can expect strong support from the influential “green team” in the administration, including climate czar Carol Browner and science adviser John Holdren. Browner’s hand was shown during the Clinton years when as head of the Environmental Protection Agency she threatened to cut transportation funds for the Atlanta region unless it adopted a smart-growth policy. The threats became moot after the change of administration in 2001.
It is not difficult to imagine such bureaucrats intruding on how communities and families function on the most basic levels. Traditions governing local land use that have existed since the beginning of the republic would be overturned. The preferred lifestyles of most Americans would come under siege.
This agenda has been widely promoted for decades, first by the Carter administration and, more recently, by both environmentalists and new urbanists. The recent concerns over global warming have provided an additional raison d’être for a policy promoting both higher transit use and denser housing patterns. The president himself has embraced this agenda, declaring in February that “the days of building sprawl” were, in his words, “over.”
The administration can expect strong support for such policies in the mainstream media concentrated in New York and Washington. These areas boast both the highest proportion of transit riders and the largest percentages working in the central core. Many among the young, single and childless couples working in media in these communities see no reason why other Americans should not live similarly.
Politically, such a remaking of America may prove difficult to pull off. Overall less than 6 percent of Americans ride public transit, a percentage that has barely changed for decades. In many states, the transit share is only 1 percent. It’s difficult to imagine a policy that disses roads, small towns and suburbs could pass Congress, 80 percent or so of whose constituents don’t live in the favored dense urban environments. And what about the 95 percent or so of Americans who get around by car? More likely, any spate of new transit and land-use regulations will be enforced through the apparat. In one scenario, administrators at the EPAcould simply oppose any transport project — for example, new roads — on the basis of carbon emissions and potential pollution. States and cities with projects not deemed “smart” enough by administrators at the Department of Transportation or HUD might be threatened with loss of funding.
Yet even this approach risks engendering a backlash. Once again, the administration could be seen as imposing a true-blue policy on a largely red, or at least purple, nation. To be successful, the administration needs to address the needs of suburban, small-city and rural residents as well as those of big-city denizens.
This is not to say the administration should not address pollution and congestion concerns head-on. But this needs to be done in ways that make both political and practical sense. Mileage requirements on cars are an excellent first step that follows this playbook, getting results without trying to remake a car-driving electorate.
In addition, the government could develop incentives for increased telecommuting and more flexible work schedules in order to reduce unnecessary driving to work. There is also room for expanded, more economical bus and jitney services that could work in some suburban and small-town locations. Instead of building light rail systems that will never get large ridership, mass transit funding should flow to successful existing systems or to a handful of dense corridors emerging in places like Houston.
All this speaks to a kind of pragmatism that may not please either the road-building zealots or the smart-growth aficionados. Such an approach would be far preferable — and more politically sustainable — than the current attempt to drive a 21st-century country back to a transportation model more appropriate for the 19th.
This article first appeared at Politico.com.