I got to ask Sen. Whitehouse about this at Nathan Bishop Middle School, and he answered the wrong way. Today at East Providence High School I asked the entire delegation: three answered (no answer from Jim Langevin). Of the three who answered, I am most hopeful that we can transform Congressman Cicilline into a full-stop champion of this position, because he has demonstrated a lot of interest in dialoguing on it (Thank you, also, Congressman, for your kind words about Mark Baumer, whose death really serves as a symbol of what is wrong with our transportation system. I think those of us missing Mark really appreciate knowing that his impact made up the chain to members of Congress).
All of the delegation members have room to improve, but of the three delegation members who answered, Sen. Whitehouse's continues to be the most stridently wrong, which is a really shame given his national reputation as a climate change champion.
Why Fix It First?
Fix It First Stops Stealing from Blue States
The Tea Party may be strongest in Red States, but it's Blue States that are actually paying the greatest in taxes. This is for a lot of reasons, but one big one is infrastructure: our pursuit of road widening throws money on sprawling exurban subdivisions and rural communities and ignores inner suburbs, cities, and small towns. It may sound attractive to give money to a few pet projects in the Blue States (and some of those projects have merit) but the bigger pattern is to put the majority of funding to pork.
Consider a potent example former Texas Governor (and Trump Energy Secretary) Rick Perry's "18 Lanes of Freedom". In 2008:
Texas officials this week marked the opening of new lanes on the Katy Freeway, a stretch of Interstate 10 that runs 40 miles west from downtown Houston. The state has added 20 miles of interior lanes, including 12 miles of HOV lanes, which officials say will eventually be converted to variable-rate HOT use. The rebuilt Katy Freeway is 18 lanes wide.
This kind of a ridiculous spending hole is possible because of the structure of how federal money is set up. The vast majority is earmarked for highways, rather than city streets, transit, bike lanes, or walking. State DOTs get to administer much of the money, and those state DOTs make sure it goes to road widening. Rhode Island, as a small state that can punch above its weight class in the Senate, is able to get a lot of earmarks for transportation that it probably should not rightfully be entitled to, but the states that usually get that money are deep red.
If we're going to stop the Tea Party, we need to take their free money away.
All This Spending is Bad for the Places that Receive It
An important thing to remember is that the places that get this money are getting a white elephant. Federal money pays for building things, but not for maintaining them. That means that when you do something dumb like propose widening I-95 (the whole delegation and Mayor Elorza support this) you get the free money up front but are stuck in debt for an eternity afterwards. It means that when you do something dumb (like Senator Whitehouse did) and advocate for rebuilding a highway disaster as-is instead of as a boulevard (despite Rhode Island advocates being able to get even the Tea Party to support a boulevard), you're stuck with a plan that will bankrupt your place longterm.
Rhode Island's small-state-punching-big-in-the-Senate status means that we get on a lot of lists that other Blue States don't. But that's nothing good. It's why when Providence appears on an embarrassing list of over-highwayed metros. Providence's partners were all from the Midwest and South. This list was called "The Who's Who of Urban Decay" by Walkable Dallas-Fort Worth and Streetsblog USA:
1. Kansas City – 1.262
2. St Louis – 1.0703. Houston – .8224. Cleveland – .8165. Columbus – .7796. San Antonio – .7597. Jacksonville – .7458. Providence – .7429. Pittsburgh – .73110. Baltimore – .72411. DFW – .719
It's pretty clear that being on this list means we're not leading on climate change, and it's also clear we're not being the best leader we can be on traffic safety, job access for the poor, or other measures.
But what's most surprising of all is that they're awful for drivers. Adding lanes to highways incentivizes new, worse land-use patterns, flight from cities, inner-suburbs, and small towns, and changes in behavior towards more driving. All of that means that within a few years, traffic is the same or worse. This isn't something kitschy I made up: real traffic engineers with national credentials pointed it out as we worked for a 6/10 Boulevard.
That 18 Lanes of Freedom that Rick Perry was so excited about (Houston, #3! Represent!)? Well, The Houston Chronicle found that it worsened traffic for the metro. And now TxDOT's got to figure out how to pay for it. Maybe that's why TxDOT, unlike RIDOT, has been looking carefully at urban highway removals.
I sure wish our delegation could have helped us with that, instead of boasting that we've got "free" money for the 6/10 Connector.
Make Sure You Only Applaud for Real Commitments, Not Amorphous Ones
One thing the delegation has gotten smarter about since Sen. Whitehouse's meeting at Nathan Bishop is delivering amorphous statements that get applause points and distract from the question the person was actually asked. Sen. Jack Reed pulled one of these, intentionally or not. I agree with Sen. Reed's statement: "We need to make sure we spend on transit." Yes! Correct. But the question I asked was what the delegation was willing to do to obstruct new spending until such time as we have an accountable policy that does that. In the meantime, while the Republicans work to cut even the tiny bit of money we put to transit, biking, and walking, agreeing to support a Trump (or even Schumer/Pelosi) infrastructure plan won't help. We want our delegation say clearly to its colleagues: Yes, we will vote for infrastructure money, but only when we have accountability.
So if you're in the audience and Sen. Reed says he supports transit, ask him to put his vote where his feelings are.
Issues Are Complex
I'm glad that progressives are working to be like the Tea Party in the sense of demanding obstructionist votes from their Congresspeople. I wouldn't be glad to see us become like the Tea Party in terms of abandoning nuance.
So yes, I would be happy to see a compromise on this issue. Can the Rhode Island delegation deliver everything I want this year? Probably not. Might they lose on all the issues? Totally possible. But as many people said to the delegation, we're okay with the fact that we might lose. We don't want Rhode Island's fingerprints on a bad policy. Please, use your votes to demand a better deal, and if you can't get something incrementally better just say no to Trump.