Thinking of George H. W. Bush can conger up a few unfortunate (for him), lasting images. For me it’s the former president’s food judgments (pork rinds good/broccoli bad), his unfamiliarity with the price of milk, and Dana Carvey’s exaggerated but dead-on impersonation. Then there was, “oh, the vision thing.” It sounded like he thought it a useless factor in governing–perhaps more so than he may have intended–but it stuck.
As a practical matter civil servants and political appointees often aren’t given the time to engage in “visioning”. Sometimes when it is done it can amount to little more than a facilitated exercise. But what may seem like a luxury, or a waste, arguably is essential for a new administration and even newly sworn congressional leadership.
At USDOT some part of a vision is in place, though I don’t know how much is the result of planning or predisposition.
The two elements of an Obama transportation vision that I can identify are high speed passenger rail and livable communities. The first is courtesy of President Obama himself. In an out-of-the-blue moment earlier this year the White House said the economic stimulus package being written in Congress must include billions to start a high speed rail program. (It was one of a few Obama “musts” in a measure that was mostly dismissed by Republicans as a “Pelosi” bill.) The rail piece was the president’s vision, and an inspired one to be sure.
The second quickly became a regularly voiced theme by Secretary Ray LaHood and his policy staff. It suits an administration that is oriented toward energy conservation, the urban environment and, not to be forgotten, the voting pedestrian/commuter. Does it qualify as vision? I think so. It’s more than a policy view because a livable community objective could transform urban and town landscapes and it entails a broad range of policy solutions.
Meanwhile a more complete administration surface transportation policy is still in the cooker. Congressional committees are wondering what and when policy recommendations for a successor to SAFETEA-LU will emerge from USDOT headquarters. Perhaps no sooner than mid 2010.
Vision and policy are not synonymous. One can have a new vision, and implementing policy, for passenger rail while maintaining a decades-old freight policy. Somehow that doesn’t sound like this administration.
It’s one thing for the recent Bush administration and Secretary Mary Peters to articulate a scant administration view about transportation that amounted to little more than less Federal government, more State responsibility, and greater private sector financing and management. It made for a transportation policy only a Cato could appreciate.
But we might reasonably expect more from Messrs Obama and LaHood given the administration’s expansive environmental and energy view. Transportation’s role in addressing those issues is significant and goes beyond putting passengers on trains and encouraging transit use and bicycling.
So here’s the question: What is the total vision that will steer administration action and guidance to congress over the next three, maybe seven, years? Will it be more than passenger rail and livable communities? Pbea