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The U.S. Conference of Mayors is holding its annual gathering in Washington, D.C. this week. One of the topics this year is transportation. Tomorrow, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx will address the group and on Friday, they’ll hear from the Chair of the House Committee on Transportation, Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster.
But what do the mayors want from Washington?
Jim Brainard, the Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana, and Paul Soglin, the Democratic mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, agree that more than any specific legislation, they’d like to see more cooperation between the parties in Congress.
Jim Brainard, mayor of Carmel, Ind.
“I think cities across the country have the challenge to plan in a more sustainable way. We have six decades now of building sprawl in our new areas in this country, and these development patterns are not sustainable financially or environmentally.”
“We need a lot less rhetoric in Washington and a lot more discussion of what the priorities are that we need to fund to make this country competitive, and raise the quality of life of its people.”
Paul Soglin, mayor of Madison, Wisc.
“We have to put in a commitment to sewers, to public transit, to rail, which is a far superior alternative to the air. We have to worry about the grid, the way we distribute power in the United States. We have to have not just net neutrality, but we have to cross the digital divide. We have to make sure that every child has access to the Internet. And through state legislation which was designed to further private interest, all of that has turned back the clock. We really have a long way to go.”
“I’ve been at this for close to 40 years, through the Nixon and Ford administrations, and Carter. In any case, one thing that made it work were Republican and Democratic mayors, in a unified manner, going to the Congress and taking on the leaders of both of our parties and making it very clear to them, ‘This is nonsense. There has to be a change of attitude.'”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. Nearly 300 mayors from around the country are in the nation's capital today for their annual conference, and one of the issues that is high on the agenda this year is transportation. The group is hearing today from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. We are joined now by two mayors: Jim Brainard, a Republican. He's mayor of Carmel, Indiana. And Paul Soglin, a Democrat, mayor of Madison, Wisconsin. Welcome to both of you.
MAYOR PAUL SOGLIN: Thank you.
MAYOR JIM BRAINARD: It's great to be here.
HOBSON: Well, Mayor Brainard, let me start with you. What would you say is the biggest challenge facing your city here in 2014?
BRAINARD: Well, I think cities across the country have the challenge to plan in a more sustainable way. We have six decades now of building sprawl in our new areas in this country, and these development patterns are not sustainable financially or environmentally.
HOBSON: Well, and you don't have any significant mass transit there in Carmel. It's not as if you can take a train into Indianapolis.
BRAINARD: We do have bus transit in Indianapolis, nonstop, direct buses. But we have a proposal before the state legislature to allow for a small amount of taxes to be raised for light rail and bus rapid transit, and having that combined regional system is a need that we have if we want to compete for good jobs. Today, many young students are getting out of the college and graduate schools, pick the city they want to live based on the quality of life in that place, then look for a job. So this just isn't about convenience. It's about truly being able to compete for good jobs.
HOBSON: Mayor Soglin, what about you? What would you say is the biggest challenge facing Madison in 2014?
SOGLIN: Producing a young, educated, thinking workforce. We have real challenges in all of our school systems, but particular in Madison, in terms of maintaining a high level of education quality, and especially as it relates to the achievement gaps.
BRAINARD: Well, what would you like to see out of this conference? What do you hope to get, for example, from the federal government that you're not getting right now?
SOGLIN: Probably more than one specific piece of legislation. It would be a recognition that this is a far more mobile society, one where problems cross not just municipal and regional, but state boundary lines, a recognition that this idiocy that's plagued the federal government for the last, really, 20 years, since Newt Gingrich brought his misdirected knowledge to that Congress, that we have to put in a commitment to sewers, to public transit, to rail, which is a far superior alternative than to the air.
We have to worry about the grid, the way we distribute power in the United States. We have to have not just net neutrality, but we have to cross the digital divide. We have to make sure that every child has access to the Internet. And through state legislation, which was designed to further private interests, all of that has turned back the clock. We really have a long way to go.
HOBSON: Mayor Brainard, as a Republican, I assume you don't agree with some of that, but what do you think about the sentiment there, that Washington is not making the kind of investments - specifically in rail and transportation - that it ought to be, that would help cities like yours?
BRAINARD: Well, I agree with Mayor Soglin on that point. It's absolutely appropriate for the federal government to look to those areas that, by nature, have to cross state lines, and a rail policy and a national transportation policy is right up at the top of that list. We have made a huge investment in that interstate highway system, but we need to supplement that with rail. We need to rethink how we do things.
We need to make certain that it's fiscally the best way to do things, and it's the best for the quality of life in this country. We need to pay a lot of attention to our ports in this country right now. Neither of us are on a port, but from a national policy standpoint, you know, the Panama Canal's getting bigger. Many of our ports in this country will not be able to handle these larger ships.
And, again, this is going to take mainly a federal effort. That's what the federal government is there for, to make us competitive as a country, to make sure that we have the infrastructure in place that we can compete. Quite honestly, we need - I'm probably in agreement with the mayor of Madison on this too - we need a lot less rhetoric in Washington and far more discussion about what the priorities are that we need to fund to make this country competitive and to raise the quality of life of its people.
HOBSON: And I think a lot of people who are listening to this - and I often think this when I hear from mayors - is that, you know, you guys are - you have to be a little more direct, you can't play as much politics as some people that are representing us in Washington, and you have to get things done because you don't have a choice.
SOGLIN: You know, I've been at this for close to 40 years, through the Nixon and Ford administrations...
BRAINARD: I had no idea you were that old, Paul.
SOGLIN: ...and Carter. But in any case, one thing that made it work were Republican and Democratic mayors, in a unified manner, going to the Congress and taking on the leaders of both of our parties and making it very clear to them this is no nonsense. There has to be a change of attitude. And it is just nothing short of stupid, not to mention bad economics, to create this false notion that if you cut taxes, you're going to create jobs and improve the economy.
Public investment in the right infrastructure, in the right human capacity, is what creates private investment, and then you get boom times.
HOBSON: Mayor Brainard, your thoughts?
BRAINARD: I don't think you find any argument from us Republicans in that statement, Paul. The Republican Party - traditionally, at least - has always understood that communities that invest in themselves are the ones that succeed. Mayors have to get it, because we're out at the grocery store, we're getting our hair cut, and we run into the people we represent.
And we just head out, we get asked about these issues. We're all focused on trying to make the lives of the people that live in our cities better, and partisanship melts away, if that's what you're focused on.
SOGLIN: I think you're really right about us mayors, and it's tragic that it can't happen in the House.
HOBSON: I want to ask one more question of both of you, which is: What city do you look to for inspiration? And I will start with you, Mayor Brainard.
BRAINARD: Oh, we looked to a lot of cities. We looked to Europe a lot. In this country, for medium-sized, small-sized cities, I look to Charleston, South Carolina. Mayor Joe Riley's held office there for 40 years, and just done a wonderful job revitalizing that city.
HOBSON: Mayor Soglin, your thoughts? What city would you look to for inspiration?
SOGLIN: Let me say that there's hardly a vibrant city in this country where I haven't stolen something, but Boston comes to me the top of the list.
HOBSON: And you're not just saying that because I'm in Boston, right? Because I won't be offended if you pick another city.
SOGLIN: Boston has made some mistakes over the years, but once Boston got past bussing, it's just been a dynamic, imaginative place without the capital of Silicon Valley.
HOBSON: Paul Soglin is the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, and we've also been speaking with Jim Brainard, the mayor of Carmel, Indiana. Thanks to both of you, and enjoy the conference.
SOGLIN: Thank you.
BRAINARD: It's great to be here, Jeremy. Thank you.
HOBSON: And Sacha, I love asking that question of mayors. I asked the mayor of Phoenix what he looked at for inspiration. He mentioned Chicago and I think Denver. But let us know what your thoughts are. What city do you think your city ought to try to be more like? You can go to hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.