Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Republicans don't like people-powered transportation

Sometimes I just have to gasp in disbelief (GASP!) when I see some of the odd things Republicans say. It's one thing when nutcases Michelle Bachmann or Mitch McConnell speak weirdness, it's another when it comes from a common-sense Repub senator such as one of mine, Mike Enzi of Gillette, Wyo.

Sen. Enzi mostly voted with the Bushies the past eight years. But he has crossed the aisle to do some horse-trading with the likes of Ted Kennedy. Now he's ranting about the cycling and pedestrian programs being promoted by the Obama administration.

Maybe it's the fact that his hometown of Gillette is almost as unwalkable as Casper or Cheyenne or almost any other Wyoming city. That's not really fair. Casper has a wonderful greenway along the North Platte River, and a walkable downtown. Cheyenne also has spent millions on a greenway that is one of the capital city's most popular attractions. Its downtown is also walkable, although too many of the downtown buildings are vacant.

Gillette has a semblance of a downtown. But the energy boom town is spread out in the manner of most western boom towns, so you need a car to get almost anywhere. If I had to compare it to any other Wyoming town, I'd choose Rock Springs. The downtown has some nice older buildings but most are empty and owned by absentee snowbird landlords in Arizona. A renovated depot and a nice park flanks the railroad tracks that bisect downtown. The park has a memorial to miners who died over the years in Sweetwater County mines. Downtown has a microbrewery and a few shops, but most of the retail action is out by I-80. Ever tried to walk the no-man's-land that borders an interstate? Almost impossible. Noisy, too.

So, when Sen. Enzi disparages government-funded walking and cycling programs, he might be excused due to lack of experience and/or information. But you would also have to acknowledge that the senator lives in one of the greatest walking cities in the U.S., a place where you can walk the National Mall for weeks and weeks, taking time off to visit the most fantastic free museums in galleries in the U.S., and still not see it all. Last time I was in D.C., just weeks after the cherry blossoms went to ground, I walked from the U.S. Capitol down the National Mall to the White House and on to George Washington University and finally to my lodgings in Adams-Morgan. I could have taken the Metro (I did the next day) but there is pleasure and exertion in the walking. And great people-watching.

The DC.STREETSBLOG.ORG site had some great info today about this issue:

Despite a growing awareness among conservatives that walking and biking are causes worth backing, Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to condemn bike-ped programs as wasteful "pork".

The GOP's latest potshots at sustainable transportation come during debate over a health care bill that focuses mainly on insurance and hospitals, but also includes a public health grant program aimed at encouraging exercise.

Sen. Mike Enzi (WY), senior Republican on the health committee, slammed the legislation for seeking to "pave sidewalks, build jungle gyms" and expand bike access to help improve public health: "We need to root out the waste, fraud and abuse that is driving up health care costs – not create a whole slew of new wasteful programs."

It's unclear whether Enzi knows that the federal government already has a program to encourage biking and walking, nor whether he's aware of their demonstrated public health benefits. But his talking point is already migrating to other Republicans, who have twisted the health care bill's proposed "community transformation" grants into a big-government bogeyman.

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