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John McCain for President (?)

My sense is that most new urbanists and smart growth advocates were happy to see Barack Obama elected President two years ago.  While John McCain opposed Amtrak and had not been overly supportive of local public transit, Obama created an Administration full of advocates for transit and urbanism, and high-speed rail is one of his Administration's signature programs.  So the Obama Administration will slow sprawl, and will make our cities more transit-oriented, prosperous and walkable.   Right? 

Michael Lewyn | February 13, 2011, 6pm PST
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My sense is that most new urbanists and smart growth advocates were happy to see Barack Obama elected President two years ago.  While John McCain opposed Amtrak and had not been overly supportive of local public transit, Obama created an Administration full of advocates for transit and urbanism, and high-speed rail is one of his Administration's signature programs.  So the Obama Administration will slow sprawl, and will make our cities more transit-oriented, prosperous and walkable.   Right? 

Not so fast.  Since President Obama took office, public transit service has been slashed almost everywhere; the Obama Administration apparently was unable to foresee how deep the recession would be, and its stimulus efforts were too small to forestall local governments' jihad against public transit.  And because the Obama Administration was too busy remaking the health insurance industry to get a highway/transit bill passed in 2010, it essentially punted the issue to the more conservative Congress taking office this year.

To make matters worse, President Obama's failure to jump-start the economy led to a right-wing backlash, causing the election of a Congress eager to cut spending on just about everything but Social Security and Medicare.    Given the House's newfound embrace of austerity, the federal government might not even continue transit funding at current levels, let alone increase funding. 

Admittedly, President Obama can still fight the Republican House with a Democratic Senate and veto power.  But his new budget will include cuts in even noncontroversial government programs such as home heating assistance for the poor- an indication that the President plans to run for reelection as Republican Lite, rather than continuing his pre-2010 pattern of supporting expanded government services.

To be fair, President Obama has started some new programs designed to further walkable urban development.  But these programs are likely to be significantly reduced by the Republican House or are too small to be particularly significant.   For example, in 2010 the government made $168 million in "sustainable communities grants" to state and local planning agencies, and was authorized to make $600 million in grants under the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program,  But this number is puny compared to the $10 billion per year that the federal government spends on the Federal Transit Administration - which means that even a small cutback in FTA funding will dwarf whatever good is done by TIGER and the sustainable communities grants.  In short, it is quite possible that public transit will get less support over the next few years than under the Bush Administration.

Would government have been more generous under McCain?  Possibly so.  On the one hand, urban development and public transit would receive little positive White House attention.  But since the public tends to react against the party holding the White House when unemployment is high, the Democrats would have gained seats in the 2010 midterms, possibly having as much as a 2-1 edge in one or both Houses of Congress.  Such a left-leaning Congress would have been unlikely to support budgetary austerity- good news for transportation advocates.  And on budgetary matters, Congress tends to get its way, since Presidents typically have limited appetite for budgetary shutdowns and trench warfare with Congress.

I cannot say whether John McCain would have been a better President overall than Barack Obama - but I strongly suspect that quite inadvertently, he would have been a better President for mayors and transit riders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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