Who is the Livable Streets Candidate?

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It’s Super Duper Tuesday, primary election day here in New York. If you’re still mulling your options and trying to figure out who the best candidate on Livable Streets issues is, Damien Newton of Street Heat L.A. and the editor of soon-to-be-launched Streetsblog Los Angeles, dug up the positions of the Democrats and Republicans for us. Grist and the Los Angeles Times have also done some nice candidate round-ups.

Also, last Thursday, NYU’s Rudin Center hosted a presidential candidates forum on transportation and infrastructure here in New York City. I was there. Unfortunately, none of the candidates showed up. Four Democratic candidates sent proxies and the Republicans didn’t even bother to do that.

Realistically, New York City probably doesn’t merit a non-fundraising candidate visit towards the end of a hotly contested national primary. Still, it was hard not to come away from the forum with the feeling that there is no "livable streets candidate" in 2008. The issues we talk about here on Streetsblog — as important as they are in people’s daily lives and at the local political level — simply aren’t a big part of the national policy debate just yet. There were hints, however, that the candidates are starting to pay attention.

Here’s what the candidates’ reps had to say, in order of appearance:

Frank McArdle, a senior advisor to the General Contractors Association of New York, spoke on behalf of Senator Hillary Clinton. "We fundamentally need to change the way we look at transportation in the U.S.," McArdle started. "Road space is not a free good. Oil is not cheap." Palms pressed in front of his chest as if in prayer, he continued. "There’s no way we can deal with the consequences of global warming and energy security unless we allow people to get out of their cars and off of airplanes. The system is broken and she recognizes it." Clinton, who made a big speech on transportation policy after the Minneapolis bridge collapse, would spend an additional $1.5 billion per year on "public transportation," McArlde said.

Yet, the visionary talk of fundamental change came to a screeching halt as soon as the issue of congestion pricing came up. Hillary wants to make sure that "congestion pricing is not simply a tax on the working middle class," McArlde said. "When we relieve congestion what are we doing it for? So ‘Beemer’ drivers can go faster?" Before implementing congestion pricing we need to make sure reliable transit alternatives are in place, otherwise we’ll have "crowding on the buses in Douglaston in Bayside." Bayside, eh? Perhaps that’s a hint as to where the Senator is getting her talking points on this particular issue.

David Eisenbach, a media and politics professor at Columbia University, represented former Senator Mike Gravel. He delivered an early 20th century history lecture on General Motors’ destruction of urban trolley systems and the CIA’s overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. We don’t need "a mass transit bill," Eisenbach said. We need to get "a look at Dick Cheney’s notes from meetings with oil executives."

Doug Biviano, a civil engineer from Brooklyn, spoke on behalf of Congressman and former Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich. He noted that 45,000 Americans die on U.S. roadways annually, adding up to "fifteen 9/11’s every single year." The solution? "We need to understand the interconnectedness of everything, make peace the organizing principle of our society and make transportation policy sing like the gospel."

David Narefsky, a Chicago lawyer specializing in infrastructure financing, spoke on behalf of Senator Barack Obama. He too started with a history lesson. President Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate Act of 1956 was "a transformational moment" and "the last time the U.S. had a unified vision for transportation," he said. "We need to make investing in infrastructure, once again, a national priority." Narefsky was light on specifics. Obama believes we need "world class infrastructure" and "21st century technologies."

Obama, Narefsky said, has supported federal funding for Amtrak, wants to see the development of high speed rail, is "a strong supporter of smart growth land use policies" and believes we need to "provide local governments resources they need to address sprawl." How do we pay for it? Obama "has not come out in support of a gas tax," Narefsky said. He prefers a "more direct imposition on users," putting a price on vehicle miles traveled rather than gasoline.

Photo: Ultraclay / Flickr

  • Larry Littlefield

    Local streets and transit are not federal issues; health care, Social Security, and foreign policy are. This is a critical issue for next year’s Mayoral election, not this one.

    A President, however, is a leader of a country as well as the overseer of a government. The best form of leadership is by personal example, in order to avoid the “do as I say not as I do” charges routinely leveled against Mayor Bloomberg.

    So a valid question is, have any of the candidates provided a model in where and how they have chosen to live? My guess is no, not even to the extent of metrocard Mayor Bloomberg and his bike riding deputy. And I think we can include all the candidates who have dropped out in that as well.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I disagree, Larry. Gas taxes or VMT taxes, funding for Amtrak, highway funding, the CEI, and the MUTCD, are all among the issues that the President can affect. The past seven years could have been much better for liveable streets if we’d had someone who cared about those issues in office. I’m not saying that Al Gore would have necessarily been better; if Bush had simply appointed Tommy Thompson (a Republican, but a member of the Amtrak board of directors) as Secretary of Transportation and Norm Mineta (a Democrat) as Secretary of HHS.

  • Don

    The smart growth and transit funding stuff in the Clinton and Obama materials is totally new for any presidential candidate/race, even if Streetsblog isn’t old enough to remember.

  • Whatever the campaign literature says, neither of the campaigns saw fit to send someone to the NYC forum who could speak about smart growth and mass transit in a serious and substantial way. McArdle came close. But how hard would it be to find good, articulate advisors on this stuff?

    Also, I do remember Michael Dukakis talking about walking to work and riding the train twenty years ago. Then again, maybe that’s why we haven’t heard anything similar since.

  • anon

    David Narefsky can’t say anything too provocative because his comments are monitored closely by his clients and network in the Chicago region. And his words are about as specific and bold as it gets in that part of the country.

    Streetsblog needs to keep in mind that the conversation about livable streets isn’t happening beyond the “encouraging more choices” level in 99.9% of the country outside of NYC. So people from outside NYC have never had to get particularly explicit about the brass tacks. And in fact it’s been in their best interest as advocates or insiders not to get to specific so that no one freaks out.

  • I like the vintage WFMU sticker on the bumper, set apart from all the political stickers.

  • Corey Bearak

    This is after voting but just want to weigh in that transportation and infrastructure are national issues and deserve reasoned responses from our wannabe leaders. Both relate to the economy. Folks can check the websites on the candidates. I suspect there are very detailed positions. As to the forum, I suspect the campaigns responded to the title of the event and not the local issues per se. It was nice to learn that McCardle whose groups supports PlaNYC and presumably the Congestion Toll/Tax scheme had to back off of it, unless his group was never there.

  • Tom West

    Given how many local transpot projects use federal funding, it’s a federal issue. Persaonlly, I think it’s time that states raised taxes and the federal goverenment cut taxes (by the same amount), so that local taxes get spent locally.

  • Rich Tan

    the mta should be building park and ride garages on the city outskirts. i should be able to park my car at the terminus of the f or the a and jump on the subway; that would make money and keep people off city streets.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Persaonlly, I think it’s time that states raised taxes and the federal goverenment cut taxes (by the same amount), so that local taxes get spent locally.)

    Check out my health care series on Room Eight in January. I think it’s time that the federal government provide universal health care funding, which would same state and local governments $zillions on Medicaid, employee health care, retiree health care, etc.

    In exchange, the federal government could eliminate funding for transportation, housing, other infrastructure, business programs, etc. States could pick those up for the savings.

    People, including those in need and those who don’t want to pay for those in need, can move across borders, so the federal government needs to cover them. Physical features are local, and should be funded locally, planned locally, decided on locally. (Otherwise, NYC gets screwed)

  • mfs

    I was at that forum and it was deadly. There wasn’t really any substance from the reps and the Kucinich and Gravel guys, despite their good points, were distracting from the purpose of the forum.

  • Kucinich Guy

    I’m the “Kucinich Guy.” How is focusing on funding for transportation policy distracting? It’s the no. 1 issue. Avoidable and endless war is the distraction. War robs trillions in funding from our transportation and infrastructure policy in addition to the unnecessary loss of life. Decaying infrastructure and unsustainable transportation policy are greater and more immediate threats to our national security than terror. In fact, they encourage more terror by relying on oil. I tried to drive these points home as did the “Gravel Guy.” The engineering design and construction for the needed alternatives and integrated solutions are not the issue. They are very doable and the specifics need not be discussed at a presidential forum. Providing the mass transit alternatives we need can only happen when the funding and political will come back to reality. I’d be happy to talk anywhere anytime about it. Doug Biviano 917-257-3652

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