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Rep. DeFazio on the transportation ‘fight’ and the Republican psyche

Posted by on March 27th, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Rep Peter DeFazio at opening plenary-2

U.S. Congressman Peter DeFazio spoke with passion during a speech at the National Bike Summit where he encouraged advocates to defend bicycling on Capitol Hill against Republicans.

One of the more memorable speeches at the National Bike Summit came from Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR). The speech came Wednesday at the opening plenary and it was meant to rile up the bike advocacy troops who would march onto Capitol Hill the next day to lobby their electeds on behalf of bicycling.

“Go up there with a passion, because this is a fight. This is a fight like we haven’t seen before, and we can’t lose.”

As House Republican leadership continues to play chicken with the Senate around their toxic and controversial H.R. 7 (that would end funding for transit, Safe Routes to School, and many other key programs) and just a few days remain before our nation’s transportation policy (and the funding that comes with it) expires — Rep. DeFazio tried to explain their perspective to Summit attendees.

DeFazio — a senior member of the powerful House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee — spoke with the anger-tinged urgency you’d expect from someone who has debated this issue at length with his Republican colleagues. Below is a transcript of his speech (emphasis is DeFazio’s, not mine):

“I think we have an extraordinary challenge before us, we are dealing with something that’s even hard to understand. If there is any philosophy behind what’s going on in the House, it’s this theory of devolution. It’s the idea that the federal government has no interest in a national transportation system. This comes from some of these Koch brother funded, right wing think tanks and a guy named Grover Norquist — who you might have heard of — whose slogan is, he wants government to be so small he can strangle it in the bathtub. And they have adherents, quite a few in the Republican caucus.

[Sweeping his hand toward Republican Rep. Tom Petri who was on the stage behind him] Not these kind of Republicans, this is a new kind of person, I don’t really even think belongs in the Republican party; they belong in some sort of right-wing, libertarian sort of organization.

DeFazio’s poster of dead-end
turnpike in Oklahoma.

Devolution… I have a poster, which I didn’t bring, but it’s a picture of a Kansas turnpike in 1956 which ends in a farmer’s field in Oklahoma because Oklahoma didn’t build their portion. That’s devolution. We’ll have the 50 states determine national transportation policy… And oh, by the way, one of the casualties along the way will be [transportation] enhancements. They have a particular hatred for enhancements [a federal program that funds many bicycling projects].

I don’t quite get it, you may have caught some of the debate… What I said to them is, ‘Look, how many of you have ever been to a Safe Routes to School program?’ I didn’t see many hands go up on the Republican side of the aisle. I said, I’ve been there; I’ve ridden with the kids. I said, we’ve got a lot of problems in America — one of them being obesity — and a lot of kids have been killed or injured on the way to school… This is a great program. I said, are you going to go home and tell people that in the United States of America, the greatest nation on earth, we can’t afford to invest in safe routes to schools for our kids! I said, go look a kid in the eye, go ride with them, go talk to a parent, go talk to a teacher, go talk to a police officer, a doctor, someone who has dealt with these challenges. The didn’t like that challenge. They said, ‘Oh we love our kids, we love our kids, this is about government telling people what to do and the government shouldn’t tell people what to do and the states can take care of this themselves and blah blah blah.’

It’s turn back the clock time… 21 years ago, Joe Kennedy and I started a little campaign called A Billion for Bikes. Well, we didn’t get a billion, but working with people like Tom Petri, we did get something called enhancements and over the years, we’ve spent nearly $6 billion on cycling and pedestrian — this is money that not have been spent, it would have been gobbled up.

Mr. Shuster’s [R-PA] response is [reading verbatim] ‘To take this money away from a federal program that’s desperately short on dollars, it needs to be focused like a laser on rebuilding our highway system. This is the key to reform.’ That’s their rationale for doing away with enhancements, so let’s turn back the clock, we’ve got to re-educate these people.

Back in ’91, I’d talk to colleagues about bikes and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah I had a bike when I was a kid,’ or, ‘Oh yeah, they’re the people with funny little helmets,’ That was it among many of my colleagues, they thought the cycling world is this little niche or it’s just kids. They didn’t realize that it is a serious alternative form of transportation — and that was 1991, let alone today.

The case we can make in terms of the number of people who are commuting or who want to commute by bike, the number of kids who are riding their bikes to school, or who want to ride their bikes to school if given the opportunity, what a big industry this is, a lot of it made in America — these are points you need to make. Talk like business people if you are in business. Tell them, yes, in the United States of America we can afford to invest in both rebuilding our existing infrastructure, but we can also afford to build a 21st century system that is less congested, more energy efficient and that will include alternatives to getting people out of their cars that will help congestion, will mitigate a flood of dollars overseas for imported oil. Give people that chance, give our kids a safe way to get to school.

Go up there with a passion, because this is a fight. This is a fight like we haven’t seen before, and we can’t lose. Thank you.”

— BikePortland’s coverage of the 2012 National Bike Summit is brought to you by Planet Bike.

UPDATE: Right after I posted this, DeFazio tweeted a link to his floor speech today eviscerating the Republican House leadership for not bringing the Senate bill up for a vote:

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

  • 9watts March 27, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Well put. And thanks for the profile of that talk, Jonathan.

    I think getting through to people who don’t realize or understand that bicycling is “a serious alternative form of transportation” is a big challenge.
    On the other hand, people all over the world ride bikes without any special infrastructure, and many of us here in the US have too. Getting more people to feel comfortable riding is I think as much about recognizing the looming end of automobility as it is about tipping the infrastructure balance back toward human powered modes.

    I don’t know how the Republicans DeFazio is up against would rationalize multibillion-dollar highway projects once they grasp that they only serve a soon to be extinct form of transport.

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  • Stretchy March 27, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    DeFazio shows what a hack he is by conflating “right-wing” with “libertarian”.

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    • Chris I March 27, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      Most of the new Republicans in the House are Tea Party Libertarians…

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      • Stretchy March 28, 2012 at 7:12 am

        The tea party isn’t libertarian, nor is it a branch of libertarianism.

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  • El Biciclero March 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    “…this is about government telling people what to do and the government shouldn’t tell people what to do …”

    Oh, such as when the Government effectively tells me “you must drive, because that’s the only kind of transportation we’re going to consider in our funding decisions…”?

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    • Opus the Poet March 28, 2012 at 6:11 pm

      Yes, like that. The government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers in transportation by building for only one mode and ignoring all the rest. Cars and trucks have their place, but so do bikes of all descriptions. There are times and places where a motor vehicle is the preferred mode of transportation (like moving heavy or bulky objects, that requires the use of the semi-truck), but equally there are times that while a motor vehicle could be used a bicycle would be the preferred choice (moving one butt and attached body distances under 10 miles one way). Also there are times when more than one mode in a trip is better, as when you need to move that butt 20 or so miles each way, you could bike to public transit to take you and the bike over most of the distance, then back to the bike for the ends of the trip. Where I live this would be the preferred way to go except that our public transit is in about the same shape as our bicycle infrastructure, more of a suggestion and an idea than a fully fledged system.

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  • q`Tzal March 27, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    Is it ok that I agree 100% with Grover Norquist’s “Americans for Tax Reform” mission statement which is:
    “a system in which taxes are simpler, flatter, more visible, and lower than they are today. The government’s power to control one’s life derives from its power to tax. We believe that power should be minimized.”
    but disagree with everything else he says as if they were the ramblings of a hilltop hermit/kook who swears the secret to long life is licking high voltage power lines?

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    • John Murphy March 28, 2012 at 11:12 am

      Flatter is code for “rich people will pay less than they do today”. If a flat tax were high enough to fund everything we need, the lower 50% would get murdered.

      It sounds so simple, but well, it’s not.

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  • Scott March 27, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    We have guts. Now it is your turn Democrats.

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    • 9watts March 27, 2012 at 5:03 pm


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      • Scott March 28, 2012 at 9:01 am


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    • Chris I March 27, 2012 at 5:27 pm

      So the democrats should stonewall as well? Okay, let’s play this out… the Federal Government stops funding infrastructure, because no one can agree on a budget. Bridges begin to fail, highways crumble. Where will you drive your car? How will you get your food and Chinese merchandise?

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      • 9watts March 27, 2012 at 5:31 pm

        “Bridges begin to fail, highways crumble.”


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      • Scott March 28, 2012 at 9:03 am

        I would love to see something so tangible as bridges and roadways crumbling en masse rather than this status quo crap where Republicans bully and Democrats take it.

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        • Chris I March 28, 2012 at 10:11 am

          You will get your wish soon:

          “The highway trust fund. The federal government was supposed to fund its share of highway and transit costs with six excise taxes (let’s call them the gas tax, but there are other levies as well).

          The scheme worked—for a while. But while Congress has more than doubled federal highway spending over 20 years, it hasn’t increased the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax since 1993. And cars have become more fuel efficient.

          So, guess what? Trust fund balances that were once stable have now gone into the red. To fill that fiscal pothole, Congress has had to shift almost $35 billion from the general fund since 2008.”

          And with the Republicans unwilling to raise the gas tax, we will be forced to cut highway spending. This is compounded by the problem of aging infrastructure. Much of the highways were built 50+ years ago, and are starting to reach the end of their usable life. Bridges in particular, will be a point of failure.

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  • Evan March 27, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    Bicycling is not “a serious alternative form of transportation.” It is a serious form of transportation, period. Cars are alternative transportation too. But as soon as you label something “alternative,” it’s already identified as something outside the mainstream…like an “alternative lifestyle.” I ride a bike for most of my transportation needs because it is the best alternative among many choices, but hardly anybody calls cars or driving alternative.

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    • matt picio March 27, 2012 at 8:28 pm

      Evan, that’s a great way to put it. Bicycles are not a “majority” form of transportation, but they are definitely now a “mainstream” mode if they weren’t before. Nearly every major city in the country now has SOME form of bicycling infrastructure, whether multi-use paths, bike lanes, what-have-you. Even Detroit, the “Motor City”, home of the automobile – has bike lanes – there’s even one in the shadow of GM headquarters itself.

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      • wsbob March 27, 2012 at 10:58 pm

        “…Bicycles are not a “majority” form of transportation, but they are definitely now a “mainstream” mode if they weren’t before. …” picio

        I think it’s true that bikes as transportation are becoming a mainstream mode, but still confined to quite a small percentage of the travel needs being met by people in the U.S., even in a comparatively high bike use city such as Portland is considered to be.

        This to date relatively small bikes as transportation usage though, shouldn’t be interpreted by members of Congress though, as an excuse to discard funding for infrastructure supporting bike use in developed parts of the country such as urban and suburban areas that are in dire need of relief from excessive motor vehicle use.

        The U.S. really does need to maintain a good, basic highway and road system. It’s worth funding such a system to a point, but that’s a point we’ve probably already reached, maybe 10-20 years back. It’s now, more than ever, time to put increasing efforts into developing strong, close-in pedestrian-bike infrastructure, as opposed to some of the nearly lame, token bike infrastructure that some cities build to get their ‘Livable City’ awards, then lean back in their chairs and resume thinking how many more parking places they can pack onto a street, and how many more motor vehicles traveling down the streets they can engineer their streets for.

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    • Owen Walz March 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm

      It’s true. Control of the language is important.

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  • Owen Walz March 27, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    The more we let the words ‘Democrat’ and ‘Republican’ into the transportation debate, the more screwed we are. Let’s use some more nuanced language here.

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  • Owen Walz March 27, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    It would be a shame if voting for active transportation became a major political liability for Republicans.

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  • Hart Noecker March 27, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    Republicans know that roads come from Jesus.

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    • 9watts March 27, 2012 at 10:29 pm

      what about bikes? 🙂

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      • q`Tzal March 28, 2012 at 5:13 am

        Bikes are the product of the Devil’s Workshop 🙂

        Actually, now that I’ve said it, it sounds like a kicka$$ name for a local frame builder.

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  • Paul Johnson March 28, 2012 at 8:47 am

    The KTA road doesn’t dead-end anymore and hasn’t for quite some time; I’ve driven over that exact spot pictured several times in both directions, most recently northbound last spring. Also, interestingly, Oklahoma created State Bike Route 66 primarily because of US bike route 66 would follow the same route, easing the availability of enhancement money.

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    • Paul Johnson March 28, 2012 at 8:52 am

      Also, it should be noted that the KTA Road didn’t dead-end in a farmer’s field, you can actually see the at-grade intersection with E0010 Road. This is now East 200th Street South, numbering from Wichita despite being on the other side of the line, and now crosses with an overpass owned by Kansas (KTA bridge 0.001)

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    • Paul Johnson March 28, 2012 at 8:55 am

      My understanding about the reason why the road didn’t lead into what’s now I 35 is because Oklahoma just didn’t have the credit required to pay my tribe for the land at the time, given that they were already financing two other turnpikes across nearly a dozen tribes they were already paying for land.

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      • Scott March 29, 2012 at 9:52 am

        Awesome Portlander stuff here. No one liked your comments because it was to much real talk. Don’t real talk in Portland Paul, keep it passive aggressive. Then you’ll get likes, but no results.

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  • Burley Trailers March 28, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Great call, Evan.

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  • k. March 28, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    Is it ok that I agree 100% with Grover Norquist’s “Americans for Tax Reform” mission statement which is:
    “a system in which taxes are simpler, flatter, more visible, and lower than they are today. The government’s power to control one’s life derives from its power to tax. We believe that power should be minimized.”
    but disagree with everything else he says as if they were the ramblings of a hilltop hermit/kook who swears the secret to long life is licking high voltage power lines?
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    I hope you have the ability to see beyond “mission statements” to what an organization is really up to. A lot of companies I’ve worked for had flowery “mission statements” that had no basis in reality. Wake up.

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    • q`Tzal March 29, 2012 at 10:29 am

      I hope you have the ability to read i WROTE.
      I said that I agree with the mission statement ONLY.

      In general mission statements are not written by those who wield power; they are written by payed subordinates to placate the masses whilst soothing the ego of the wielder.

      As for the alleged simplicity of a flat tax – I never said flat tax. The appeal of a simplistic tax code speaks to what I believe is the actual problem the general public has with taxes.
      There is a widely held and often accurate belief that anyone can “cheat” (not pay taxes) if they can successfully navigate our Byzantine tax code. Until this perception is resolved no taxes will be viewed as “fair”.

      But thank you for assuming I know nothing of what I speak.

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      • k. April 2, 2012 at 8:57 am

        Wow. I don’t think that’s what I assumed or implied. Somebody’s sensitive.

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  • fatmidwesternwhiteguy March 31, 2012 at 10:41 am

    When I was a kid growing up in the 1970’s, almost all kids rode their bikes to school. There were rows of bike racks in front of the school stacked full of bikes. Now, there are no bike racks in front of the schools at all. There is a traffic jam of SUV’s in front of the school blocking all traffic on the road as they wait to turn in to drop their kid off right in front of the door. Because the kid can’t walk 100 feet to the bus, or the kids is too good to ride the bus, and it’s uncool to ride a bike. It makes me sad.

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