As the primary season continues, MTR decided to ask the question: To what extent does transportation factor into the political discourse of the U.S. presidential candidates? Though it’s unlikely that transportation and land use issues will end up determining the election, nearly all of the candidates list climate change or energy independence as key planks in their platforms (the main exception being Ron Paul, who told City Hall News that he had never used the NYC or Washington, D.C. subways because subsidized transit violated his libertarian principles; does he drive on [subsidized] highways?).
To date, only the three main Democratic candidates (Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama) address the link between mass transit and smart growth on one hand and reduced automobile use and oil dependence on the other.
Hillary Clinton wants to increase federal funding for public transit by $1.5 billion per year. She mentions principles inherent in a smart growth approach to land use as she vows to encourage a shift away from commercial developments towards urban centers that balance residential, commercial, and transportation needs. She correctly points out that this will help discourage sprawl and fight congestion while also increasing mobility options for the elderly. She wants to invest an additional $1 billion in intercity passenger rail systems as this mode is a “critical component of the nation’s transportation system.”
John Edwards’ few sentences on transportation give a mere glimpse into his transportation priorities but he does reference smart growth and transit-oriented development and wants to create incentives to reduce vehicle-miles traveled in the US. He will “support more resources” to encourage greater mass transit use amongst workers and will encourage more affordable and environmentally sound transportation alternatives.
Barack Obama is the only candidate to connect transportation and economic access. He identifies lack of adequate public transportation as a barrier to low-income people seeking work and highlights the disproportionate share of income they spend on transportation. Like Clinton and Edwards, he wants to see increased transportation funding but he goes further by seeking to incentivize bike and pedestrian measures. He also wants to reform the tax code to equalize the commuter pre-tax benefits for parking and transit riding (currently, employees can use up to $220/month in pre-tax income for parking, but only $115/month for transit).
(Bill Richardson, who dropped out of the race last week, had called for increased transit funding, highlighted sprawl as a key cause of energy use, and said he would encourage local governments to build bike infrastructure using tax incentives.)
The rest of the candidates have little to say about transit or land use issues. Rudy Giuliani‘s “plan to move toward energy independence” says nothing about getting people out of their cars onto mass transit nor mentions anything about investment in public transportation – a disappointing plan from the former mayor of the most transit-dependent city in the US.
Mike Gravel would be better off calling for something more realistic than an extensive national network of magnetically levitating trains, but at least he is thinking of public transportation.
Dennis Kucinich has called for increased funding for mass transit, but his environmental platform largely focuses on other issues. Mike Huckabee‘s “comprehensive energy independence plan” has no details, though he plans to achieve this independence by the end of his second term in office. Mitt Romney is also mum on transportation issues, but believes we can reduce our energy dependence by opening up the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration and increasing off-shore drilling. Unlike the other Republicans, John McCain identifies climate change as a key issue, but says nothing about transportation. Fred Thompson, on the other hand, is still not convinced by global warming, saying “While we don’t know for certain how or why climate change is occurring, it makes sense to take reasonable steps to reduce CO2 emissions without harming our economy.” (Those steps say nothing about investing in public transportation.)
As measured by the presidential campaigns, transportation policy on the national level is still dominated by debates over CAFE standards and investing in alternative fuels. But as more Americans move to cities and traffic congestion continues to worsen, national politicians must recognize that auto-dependent development is as big an issue – if not bigger – than old automobile technology. Notably, Democratic frontrunners Sens. Clinton (D-NY) and Obama (D-IL), who have comparatively extensive transportation plans, represent states with major urban centers and transportation infrastructure. New York City and Chicago have the largest and second-largest transit systems of all U.S. cities, and both metropolitan areas have significant commuter rail and bus networks. (Both city transit systems are also facing major funding crises.)
Locally, representatives from the Clinton, Giuliani, and Obama campaigns have confirmed their attendance at an “Presidential Candidates’ Forum on Infrastructure and Transportation” hosted by the NYU Rudin Center on Jan. 31.