Viewpoints

Why transit boosters are hopeful about Trump

A customer waits for a receipt at a gas station in Des Moines in February 2015 on the day the Iowa Senate approved a 10-cent increase to the state fuel tax to help pay for road improvements.
A customer waits for a receipt at a gas station in Des Moines in February 2015 on the day the Iowa Senate approved a 10-cent increase to the state fuel tax to help pay for road improvements. Associated Press file

In the days following Donald Trump’s election as president, progressive activists on issues such as health care, education and the environment said they were preparing to fight to protect everything they worked so hard to achieve during the Obama administration.

But at a post-election gathering in Sacramento of transportation policy experts from around the country, the attitude was decidedly different.

Advocates for public transportation, safe streets, bike lanes and human-friendly urban planning seemed more optimistic about their prospects in a Trump-led world.

Why? Because over the past decade, new ways of thinking about transportation have begun to enjoy bipartisan support in Congress and in the states, thanks to the demands of constituents and business groups fed up with traffic gridlock and the personal and economic toll it takes on all of us.

“Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a lock on making smart decisions,” said Geoff Anderson, president and CEO of Smart Growth America. “There’s a remarkable level of consensus out there among the American public for moving in this direction.”

James Corless, executive director of Transportation For America, which hosted the event, said he was cautiously optimistic about the future because Republicans, after taking over Congress in 2010, did not cut back funding for “active transportation.”

And two years later, when that funding was frozen, cities and states across the country responded with initiatives of their own. Wyoming, as conservative a state as there is, passed a 10-cent per gallon increase in the gas tax, as did Iowa.

In Georgia, a Republican governor signed a bill to increase gas, tourism and truck taxes to pay for a $1 billion-a-year transportation program to help repair roads and build new ones. Public transit advocates were especially pleased with a provision to allow Atlanta’s city government to ask voters to approve a local sales tax increase to pay for public transportation.

And in Utah, a bipartisan package passed last year revised the gas tax and indexed it to inflation while dedicating future revenues to a variety of transportation modes. That was just the latest in a string of policy changes that have turned the Beehive State into a model of smart urban planning and progressive transportation ideas.

“If you talk to a Republican in a red state, we think one of the proper roles of government is your infrastructure, your transportation infrastructure,” said Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, a Republican and former public transit skeptic who has become one of its biggest advocates.

Hughes helped shepherd the latest funding bill through his Legislature by convincing rural lawmakers that their constituents would benefit not only from road repairs but from transit projects that would help fight air pollution and reduce highway traffic. Planning policy changes designed to concentrate growth in urban areas will help relieve pressure to develop farmland, he said.

“Why would we memorialize one mode – the automobile?” Hughes asks.

Corless, who will soon begin a new job as director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, said transportation advocates are hoping that the emerging consensus will be reflected in policy proposals advanced by the new Trump administration and passed by Congress.

“We think Trump is serious about passing a major infrastructure bill in his first 100 days,” he said. “The question is whether Congress will follow suit.”

Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report. He can be contacted at daniel.weintraub@calhealthreport.org.

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