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Boehner bombs: House speaker fails on transportation bill

Photo by Medill DC.

Poor John Boehner. He thought he was going to be a hero. Now he just looks like a chump.

Boehner, you will recall, is the fearless leader -- the speaker, actually -- of the U.S. House of Representatives. Last month, he introduced a federal highway bill that, if passed, would have made him the king of the road, the darling of the suburbs, the object of every car-lover’s desire.

When he couldn’t find enough support to pass the bill (urban Republicans didn’t like his plan to cut funding for transit, budget hawks balked at the price tag), Boehner threatened the unimaginable: If the House didn’t sign on to his masterplan, he vowed, he would go with a compromise bill that passed in the Senate with (the horror!) broad support from both Republicans and Democrats.

But the threats didn’t work -- the House refused to go along with Boehner’s plan. Now, Boehner is locked in a high-stakes game of chicken with the Senate and House Democrats, who are trying to force him to settle for the compromise. If neither side gives, we’re headed for a shutdown of federal transportation programs when the current transportation bill expires this Saturday.



Mayor awesome: Against all odds, L.A.’s mayor stays green

Los Angeles' supergreen mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. (Photo by David Starkopf.)

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is about as green as they come. Since his election in 2005, Villaraigosa has instated a massive climate action plan, slashed air pollution at the Port of Los Angeles, pulled more than 2,000 diesel trucks off the roads, retrofitted more than 64,000 street lights with energy-efficient LEDs, enacted some of the nation’s strictest green building standards, championed the restoration of the L.A. river, created 51 new parks, slashed the city's water use, increased recycling, and started work on an ambitious mass transit expansion in a city that is famously enamored of the automobile.

Granted, Villaraigosa has a tendency to lay plans that will have no chance of coming to fruition before he is term-limited out in 2013: Build 1,600 miles of bikeways! Plant a million trees! And now he wants to wean L.A. from coal power by 2025. But at a time when most cities are struggling just to meet residents’ basic needs, he can be forgiven for being overly ambitious.

One of Villaraigosa’s policy centerpieces has been Measure R, a voter-approved tax that will raise $40 billion over 30 years to fund transportation infrastructure. Almost half of the money will go to mass transit. And to speed progress, Villaraigosa has convinced Democrats and Republicans in Congress to support a plan called America Fast Forward, which would allow L.A. to get the work done in 10 years, rather than 30 -- and similarly reward other cities that are taking on ambitious transit projects.

At press time, America Fast Forward is tied up in Congress, where the House and Senate are engaged in a high-stakes game of chicken over passing a new transportation bill. But political high jinks in Washington aren’t stopping Villaraigosa from dreaming big. He says he’ll move forward with or without help from Washington.

We caught up with Villaraigosa this week to see how he’s managed to stay green in a time when, as a famous frog once lamented, it’s anything but easy.


Trainspotting: Transit vote could bring new life to a gritty city

Photo by Charlie32480.

Here’s the $8.5 billion question: Can suburbanites be convinced to care about cities again?

Urban America is hoping so. For some cities, it’s a matter of life and death. And nowhere is the question more relevant than in Atlanta, where citizens will vote this summer on a massive regional transportation initiative that would stitch together a city and suburbs that have been divided for decades along racial, economic, and political lines.

The all-too-familiar storyline goes like this: Back in the 1960s and ’70s, Americans bolted from urban centers like concert goers from a burning theater, leaving cities smoldering, sometimes literally. And while urban industrial might built the suburbs, suburbanites were content to leave cities on the ash heap of history.

Witness the 1971 vote in Atlanta and its outlying counties over creating a tax to build a regional mass transit system. The vote broke down along racial lines, says Robert Bullard, a longtime Atlantan who is widely considered to be the father of environmental justice. The largely African American city and two counties voted to support the system, while two other counties, both predominantly white, opted out. The joke at the time was that MARTA -- the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority -- was short for “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”


Earth out of balance: The challenge of controlling corporate greed

When David Rothkopf came to Grist’s hometown of Seattle in 1999, he was a member of President Clinton’s commerce team, here to spread the gospel of free trade at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting. You may recall that the delegates didn’t get the warm welcome they might have imagined.

“I remember being at this black tie thing and was talking to Bill Gates … and the Sultan of Brunei walked in,” says Rothkopf, who was clearly impressed with the crowd. “And then a friend of mine walked in and said, ‘Somebody just punched me in the face.’”

Outside, the police had used tear gas to break up nonviolent protests against the WTO, and chaos and riots were spreading through downtown.

When Rothkopf made a return visit this week, we made sure he felt more welcome. (Pretzels! Tap water! The sultan would have felt right at home.) And this time, Rothkopf was singing a tune that might well have gotten him booted from the black tie affairs back in 1999, and put him in solidarity with the people in the streets.


Goodbye-ways: The downfall of urban freeways

The golden days -- when the traffic hadn't caught up with the lanes. (Photo by coltera.)

We can say this for our Great Urban Freeway Experiment: It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The time was the 1950s and '60s, specifically, and U.S. cities were watching their residents flee to the suburbs in alarming numbers. Their solution: Build giant freeways connecting city centers to the ’burbs, thereby allowing citizens to live the good life on the outskirts and commute to work in the urban core. It was an attempt to hang on to urban industrial might even as the city’s population bled (or drove) out.

When all was said and done, these freeways did salvage some downtown commerce, but they only accelerated the flight from the inner city. At the same time, they carved up historic urban neighborhoods, turned whole sections of cities into slums, and cut off many downtowns from their waterfronts. Legendary urban activist Jane Jacobs was among the first to fight the scourge of the urban highway, and by the late 1970s and early 1980s, it had become all but impossible to gain approval for new highways through urban areas.

It’s one thing to stop building urban freeways, however, and another thing entirely to tear down existing ones. For many city centers, those highways still look a lot like lifelines.


Giving cities a bad name: The most craptastic urban rebranding efforts ever

OK, this one is worthy. (Image from

When we asked readers and friends on Facebook and Twitter to help us find the goofiest city slogans, nicknames, and rebranding campaigns ever, we had no idea what we were getting into. Really. Turns out this country is CHOCK FULL of marketing consultants who don’t have the foggiest clue what they’re doing -- and cities love to hire these people!

It’s no wonder Americans have been high-tailing it for the ’burbs for decades: Cities seem to never fail to find fresh ways to look like doofuses.

Read more: Cities


Zombie pipeline! Senate narrowly kills Keystone XL — for now

Photo by Rodolpho Reis

The Senate voted down legislation on Thursday that would have paved the way for the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline -- barely. Eleven Democrats joined 45 Republicans to vote in favor of the project, ignoring lobbying from President Obama himself. But the measure needed 60 votes to move forward, so despite support from the majority, it died.

Rest assured, however, that we haven’t seen the last of this undead monster.

Read more: Energy Policy, Oil


Engine failure: GOP’s signature highway bill sputters, dies

House Speaker John Boehner has given up on passing his pet highway bill. (Photo by Gage Skidmore.)

In an increasingly desperate attempt to save his signature, $260 billion highway bill from the junkyard, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pleaded with fellow Republicans to get on the bandwagon this week, even threatening to go with the (gasp!) bipartisan Senate bill instead if they didn’t get in line. Now it looks like he has given up on passing his own bill altogether.

To anyone who has been watching this saga, it comes as no surprise that Boehner’s bill is in the ditch. The original proposal, floated in late January, would have cut all designated funding for mass transit, bike paths, and safe routes to school, and tied highway building to increased oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It also included a mandate to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Not a winning combination.


Gimme bomb shelter: FEMA pushes for disaster-proof green buildings

Photo by Rob Sheridan.

When people say, “Call the National Guard,” they really mean Craig Fugate. As head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he’s the guy who swoops in after a tornado or flood to clean up the mess with executive muscle and a pool of cash from the federal treasury. So perhaps it’s no great surprise that he supports efforts to create buildings that are essentially apocalypse-proof: For this guy, every day is another disaster.

Of course, there’s also the fact that FEMA has actually been working on credit. “I owe you a lot of money from the National Flood Insurance Program -- about $18 billion,” Fugate told a group at the National Press Club last week. “Those are payouts from 2005 hurricane season.”

You may remember that season for its unruly offspring: Dennis, Emily, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. And climate scientists tell us there are many more to come. “We cannot afford to continue to respond to disasters and suffer impacts -- particularly looking at large-scale catastrophic disasters -- under the current program,” Fugate said. “It will fail.”

The solution? Get smarter about how and where we build.


High gas prices? Whatevs — my phone gets me where I want to go

This is a stick-up. Give me your car keys or your cell phone. I don’t care which. What’s it gonna be, pal?

For a growing number of young people, the answer is the keys. A recent survey from the research company Gartner finds that 46 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Americans would rather have access to the internet than their own car. In auto-obsessed Germany, three-quarters of those in the same age group would rather live without their car than their smartphone.