Senator Ben Cardin, Legislator of the Year
Presenting Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) the Legislator of the Year award at the 2016 National Bike Summit & Women’s Forum was one of those classic moments of the Summit. Just as I got on stage to introduce him, the fire alarm went off and the building was cleared. Not to be deterred, Cardin was game to accept the award and deliver his remarks in the courtyard of the Renaissance Hotel. So he yelled his remarks — without a microphone, podium or stage — to a crowd of bike advocates using selfie sticks to get a picture of him over the crowd.
“A fire alarm was not going to stop me from addressing the people on the front lines of developing impactful transportation alternatives in communities across the country,” Cardin said.
Senator Cardin was an obvious choice. Bicycle advocates around the country know his name from the Cardin-Cochran Amendment, which protected funding for biking and walking by creating a competitive program for local governments. That’s the biggest thing he’s done for us, and I want to take a moment to talk about the smaller things he does for us on a regular basis that make the big things possible. To tell that story I want to zero in on a Congressional hearing in 2014.
In the delayed run up to the transportation bill, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a number of hearings highlighting stakeholders talking about a need for a long term transportation bill. They did these hearings to build a record on the need for a bill and to build political pressure to get it done. There were so many of these hearings that they had become, if not boring, at least rote. Committee members invite a spokesperson from their Department of Transportation or possibly a mayor from their state to talk about the pressing need for infrastructure investment and to show support for the long-term certainty and for the robust funding they need. They often feel like a very polite, and somewhat scripted call and answer session.
In the summer of 2014, when it was his turn to bring in a witness, Senator Cardin did something a little unusual. He reached across party lines and across the country to bring in Greg Ballard, the Republican Mayor of Indianapolis, to deliver focused remarks on the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP). What ensued was pure magic.
When it was Mayor Ballard’s turn, he spoke about the benefits of the competitive and local control provisions in TAP to allow him to build biking facilities. As Senator Cardin started asking questions of Ballard about the economic benefits, the improved access for low income communities, etc., Mayor Ballard could barely answer before being interrupted by the other witnesses.
Before long almost every witness went off script to talk about the benefits of bicycling and walking projects in their states and cities. Officials from Delaware, Oklahoma and Vermont told stories of TAP projects critical to economic development, climate resilience after natural disaster and health. St. Landry, Louisiana, Parish President William Fontenot even stated that delivering these small projects helped restore trust in government. The usual staid atmosphere of a congressional hearing turned into an energetic testimonial on the benefits safe biking and walking can make in cities, counties and states.
Even California Senator Barbara Boxer, then Chair of the Committee, got involved by asking the two Mayors to do a sign-on letter of Mayors who supported the TAP program. She said that the program faced opposition in Congress but what she was hearing from the witnesses was broad-based support at the local level. The request resulted in a letter of support from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities with the signatures of over 370 locally elected officials.
I can’t say for sure that this one congressional hearing led to a Senate transportation draft that included almost all of our “asks” for the TAP program — but it was one small moment in Senator Cardin’s consistent efforts to include biking and walking into the transportation discussion, and it’s this leadership that makes Senator Cardin our Legislator of the Year.
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