Vanishing Automobile update #1

The Bush Administration and Smart Growth

Opponents of smart growth who breathed a sigh of relief when Al Gore lost his bid for the White House should be very afraid of Bush's key cabinet picks. While Bush's nomination of Gail Norton as Secretary of the Interior signals that Bush intends to shake up some environmental policies, all indications so far are that he will stay the course regarding urban policy.

That course, of course, is smart growth, which has been strongly promoted by the Clinton administration's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation (USDOT). These departments have promoted rail transit over highways; subsidized high-density developments in cities and suburbs; and offered millions of dollars in support to non-profit smart-growth advocates.

As The Vanishing Automobile shows for Portland, Oregon, these smart-growth policies increase congestion, pollute the air, make single-family housing unaffordable for most residents, increase urban-service costs and taxes, and reduce urban open space. Yet smart growth has been strongly endorsed by Bush's picks for EPA and USDOT.

Bush's nominee as director of the Environmental Protection Agency, New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman, has been a strong proponent of smart growth in her state. A search of the Bergen Record's archives and other sources reveals that:

CNN reports that, in accepting the nomination from President-Elect Bush, Whitman vowed to "ensure that our suburbs and urban areas are not overrun by urban sprawl." This suggests she will do little to stop EPA's subsidies to smart-growth groups or its campaign against new highways in congested cities.

Bush's nominee for transportation secretary is even worse than Whitman. Norman Mineta is the token Democrat in Bush's cabinet, but Bush could have picked many Democrats who would be better for urban mobility than Mineta.

Elected mayor of San Jose in 1971 and to Congress in 1974, Mineta was a strong proponent of San Jose's light-rail system. Lacking a dense urban core, San Jose is one of the least suited urban areas for light-rail transit, yet Mineta's position on the House Public Works and Transportation Committee allowed him to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars of dollars into extensions of that system.

In 1998, the latest year for which national transit data are available, the San Jose light-rail lines carried just 0.15 percent of regional travel. Each route mile carried about a fifth as many passenger miles of travel as a typical urban freeway lane, making it the third least productive of seventeen major light-rail systems in the country. Yet Mineta learned nothing from this failure and instead favors building more new rail systems across the country.

Mineta was a principle author if not the principle author of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which is the law most responsible for the smart-growth mess American cities are in today. The law's planning process allowed auto opponents to distort urban transportation systems and make congestion the goal rather than congestion reduction. The law also encouraged cities to build low-productivity rail transit lines instead of high-productivity highways.

Early indications are that Mineta may appoint Denver transit chief Cal Marsella as head of the Federal Transit Administration ("Bush may higher Denver RTD boss," Rocky Mountain News, January 13, 2001). Marsella's agency, RTD, recently collected $525 million dollars from the Federal Transit Administration to extend Denver's light-rail system.

Aside from deciding how much money will be spent on rails vs. highways, the Department of Transportation also gives grants to local governments and non-profit groups to promote smart growth. Mineta's nomination suggests that this boondoggle will not stop anytime soon.

Technically, the debate over rail vs. highway transit is a debate over efficiency and productivity. But politically, it is a debate between the growing suburbs, which need new highways, and the stagnant central cities, which want pork barrel support of their obsolete densities. On January 17, big-city mayors urged Bush and Congress to give them more money for rail transit and received an encouraging response from Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. After all, pork barrel is a bipartisan issue.

No doubt there were major differences between Gore and Bush on some issues. On urban issues, it increasingly appears that there are none. Supporters of the American Dream -- mobility and freedom of choice in housing and transportation -- will have to work hard to get a fair hearing for their views.

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