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

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:

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