A state of transition for the US ‘land of highways’

Pretty well since the 1950’s the US has been considered the ‘land of the automobile’ and by extension from that the ‘land of highways’. The Interstate highway system has long been held up as a shining example of transportation done right. The only problem is that only applies if you have cheap gas and a plentiful supply of automobiles.

As our world becomes more ‘green conscious’, more by necessity than desire it should be pointed out, there is a growing shift in thought away from sprawling suburbs, three car garages and highways as far as the eye can see. While much of the US transportation department is centered around the Highway Trust Fund and the upkeep of existing highway systems there seems to be a radical shift in attitude since the election of Barak Obama.

Leading the change, or rather being a partner in the change, is U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Along with U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson we are seeing for the first time a shift away from maintenance to one of involvement. The partnership between the three agencies alone is a radical shift in thinking which the outlined both on the DOT website and before Congress

LaHood-Donovan-Jackson-before-congress

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson today announced an interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities to help improve access to affordable housing, more transportation options, and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment in communities nationwide.

Testifying together at a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing chaired by U.S. Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Secretary LaHood, Secretary Donovan and Administrator Jackson outlined the six guiding ‘livability principles’ they will use to coordinate federal transportation, environmental protection, and housing investments at their respective agencies.

When asked by Amanda Ruggeri in a recent interview for U.S. News World Report whether this point in time was a watershed moment for transportation LaHood replied

I think the term really is “transformational.” The things we have in our part of the economic recovery are not just highways and bridges. It’s transit. It’s airports. It’s $8 billion for high-speed rail. And I also think it’s some opportunities that we have to promote livable communities.

This idea of livable communities is a constant theme of LaHood’s, both in interviews and on his own personal DOT blog. It is also one of the changes that we are seeing in the thinking of all three agencies as they begin to work together. As Kaid Benfield, Director of Smart Growth Program, pointed out in a post on the NRDC Switchboard blog – this is a big thing

I wrote about the announcement then – emphasizing the agencies’ intention to “have every major metropolitan area in the country conduct integrated housing, transportation, and land use planning and investment.” You’d be surprised how few regions do this now. In defiance of logic, land use and transportation are considered independently, and the results of that are all too apparent on our chaotic landscape and soaring carbon emissions from driving. This in itself was big.

suburbia

This culture of driving is often seen, or considered to be as some sort of inalienable right in the US. Our vehicles are seen as status symbols, the distance we have to travel to work as some sort of badge of honor. Slowly though this attitude seems to be changing and surprisingly the government seems to be willing to take a leading role. As LaHood said in the Amanda Ruggeri interview when asked about this shift

We’ve spent three decades building an interstate system. We’ve put almost all of our resources into the interstate system. This is a transformational president, and the department is following the president’s lead. People haven’t really been thinking about these things. They have been thinking about how to build roads, how to build interstates, how to build bridges. People now are thinking differently about where they want to live, how they want to live, and how they want to be able to get around their communities.

Unfortunately, as with all things governmental it seems, this sea change of how transportation is being dealt with may be a lot slower than some would hope. As Jesse Fox on Treehugger points out more pressing issues like healthcare may stall any serious overhaul

However, for the moment anyway, it appears that such a serious legislative overhaul will have to wait. Apparently preferring to save its political leverage for the coming battles over health care and climate legislation, the Obama Administration is likely to support extending existing transportation legislation for another year and a half – effectively pushing off the new bill until then.

One can only hope that the will and backbone to make serious changes will still be there when the time comes, or will political expediency and power broking win out again?

[pictures of Sec. LaHood courtesy of his Fast Lane blog]