Obama’s Highways Chief: Wishy-Washy on Emissions?

Victor Mendez, nominated by the White House to lead the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), spent more than an hour this morning with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — but the most illuminating moment in the hearing came as the clock was running down.

Victor_Mendez_1683.jpgFHWA nominee Victor Mendez testified before the Senate today. (Photo: transportation1.org)

Sen. Thomas Carper (D-DE) asked the nominee a simple question: What does Mendez, a former Arizona state DOT director and ex-president of AASHTO, think of recent legislation codifying "complete streets" principles and expanding the "Safe Routes to School" program on childhood bike and pedestrian safety?

Mendez, whose legacy in Arizona centers on a massive Phoenix freeway project, wavered a bit. Both ideas "fit neatly into what I believe is Secretary LaHood’s livability concept," Mendez replied, describing Safe Routes to School as a good thing for his state but not addressing "complete streets" directly.

Though Carper was openly dissatisfied with the answer, he moved on to an even simpler question: Given that previous hikes in auto fuel-efficiency standards have ultimately led to more driving (and increased congestion), does Mendez think that lowering carbon emissions from the transportation sector should be a goal of the upcoming climate change bill?

Theoretically, it should have been easy for Mendez to endorse that concept, especially on the same day that his future boss blogged on the benefits of transit. But if the future highways chief encouraged decreasing transportation emissions, then — horrors! — he might be open to the transit sector’s plea for a share of the emissions allocations in the climate bill.

So Mendez wavered again, deferring to Transportation Secretary LaHood. "I think he’s going to yield to you for advice on this," Carper said, asking his question one more time.

One more time, Mendez ducked the query. Finally, he asked the senator if reducing transportation-related emissions implied endorsing a specific policy or a general goal. When Carper replied that a general goal was all Mendez would need to endorse, the nominee did so — in measured tones.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask that a former leader of the highway-building lobby be more openly committed to decreasing the environmental impact of transportation, which accounts for a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

But if Mendez can’t bring himself to openly support the "complete streets" plan backed by President Obama, and if he couldn’t sign on to a specific policy for reducing emissions, it’s worth asking whether he supports national climate legislation in the first place. And if he doesn’t, what’s he doing in the administration?

Late Update: It’s worth noting that Mendez was first appointed to the Arizona DOT’s top spot by a Republican, then-Gov. Jane Dee Hull.

  • Chris in Sacramento

    Fabulous reporting. Thanks for being there for us.

  • Agreed, great article.

    Political resistance inside DC against dealing with emissions (for whatever variety of dumb reasons) is part of what brought Detroit so low (as if that needs to be said).

  • Very strange, how did this guy get so far in Obama’s administration? Is he politically connected?

  • Shemp

    Don’t you think this is more about not getting boxed in endorsing specific legislation before the administration has its whole team in place, before it has seen an overall bill from either house of Congress etc. than a general indication of direction?

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

STREETSBLOG USA

Complete Streets Bill Introduced in Senate

|
Earlier this week, 12 senators, led by Tom Harkin (D-IA), introduced the Complete Streets Act of 2011 (S.1056), a companion to the House bill we reported on a few weeks back. The purpose of the bills is to push states and metropolitan planning organizations to fully consider incorporating pedestrian and bicycle safety measures when roads […]
STREETSBLOG USA

Feds Propose Major Rule Changes to Eliminate Barriers to Safer Streets

|
Applying highway design standards to city streets has been a disaster for urban neighborhoods. The same things that make highways safer for driving at 65 mph — wide lanes, “clear zones” running alongside the road that have no trees or other “obstacles” — make surface streets dangerous and dreadful for walking, killing street life. The one-size-fits-all approach to […]
STREETSBLOG USA

It Just Got Easier for Cities to Design Walkable, Bikeable Streets

|
We probably haven’t seen the last of engineers who insist on designing local streets like surface highways. But at least now they can’t claim their hands are tied by federal regulations. Last week, the Federal Highway Administration struck 11 of the 13 design rules for “national highways” — a 230,000-mile network of roads that includes many urban streets. The rule change eliminates […]
STREETSBLOG USA

For the Record, the Feds Don’t Require Streets to Speed Car Traffic

|
When advocating for a street redesign that will take some space away from cars, it’s common to run up against this classic brush-off from your local transportation agency: The federal government won’t allow it. Well, the Federal Highway Administration recently went on the record to shoot down that excuse. The FHWA doesn’t require states and local governments to speed cars through streets, […]