Last week, ASLA leadership landed on Capitol Hill for their annual advocacy day. More than 150 ASLA leaders met with Senators and Congressional representatives to talk about the issues that matter most to landscape architects (see video above about ASLA’s advocacy work).
During the day, ASLA advocates heard from Representative Thomas Petri, who is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. This subcommittee oversees highways, recreation trails, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and Safe Routes to Schools projects.
Representative Petri said Congress is in the beginning stages of reauthorizing a 5-6 year transportation bill. He said these longer-term bills are important because they set the stage for “long-term planning and investment by the private sector.” Representative Petri said he gets many calls from companies asking him “what to plan for.” Right now, federal transportation investments are only being planned one to two years out, through extensions, which means private sector may be holding back on spending on infrastructure.
Unfortunately, there will be winners and losers with the new bill. Representative Petri said “only 68 percent of the current programs can be financed. We have to come up with new revenue or scale back.” The federal government uses a gas tax to finance transportation infrastructure work. Now the federal gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon, “not a lot.” Getting a gas tax hike through Congress may be difficult to achieve. States are confronting the same challenge. Some states like Virginia have even eliminated gas taxes, while others like Wyoming are raising theirs dramatically.
Representative Petri said a broad coalition is needed on the Hill to ensure the transportation bill “aims for the highest common denominator instead of the lowest.” The U.S. should aspire to have a excellent transportation system again, instead of crumbling highways that earn a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Representative Petri mentioned Lady Bird Johnson’s “roadside enhancement” program, which happens year after year, as a great example. “We now have some beautiful parkways, even in urban areas.”
Investment in mass transit can also support the right kind of urban growth. Representative Petri said that once a urban area reaches a certain size, it must “grow up instead of out.” To finance the process of growing up, Representative Petri said the federal government must fund urban mass transit projects that lead to greater density, or at least kick-start their development. “Federal commitments can help cities and states secure Wall St. financing.” Petri also called for keeping “street improvements,” those “transportation enhancements” that were the subject of so much debate last year.
And while there will be tradeoffs in the new bill — not everyone will win — “we must work together to achieve a balance.” Let’s just hope that balance means a lean towards more investment in the pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure so many communities need. As Representative Petri argued at the end, “there are great prospects for improving the system, while also making it more livable, beautiful, and human-scale.”