Obama’s Highways Chief: Wishy-Washy on Emissions?

Victor Mendez, nominated by the White House to lead the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), spent more than an hour this morning with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee -- but the most illuminating moment in the hearing came as the clock was running down.

Victor_Mendez_1683.jpgFHWA nominee Victor Mendez testified before the Senate today. (Photo: transportation1.org)

Sen. Thomas Carper (D-DE) asked the nominee a simple question: What does Mendez, a former Arizona state DOT director and ex-president of AASHTO, think of recent legislation codifying "complete streets" principles and expanding the "Safe Routes to School" program on childhood bike and pedestrian safety?

Mendez, whose legacy in Arizona centers on a massive Phoenix freeway project, wavered a bit. Both ideas "fit neatly into what I believe is Secretary LaHood's livability concept," Mendez replied, describing Safe Routes to School as a good thing for his state but not addressing "complete streets" directly.

Though Carper was openly dissatisfied with the answer, he moved on to an even simpler question: Given that previous hikes in auto fuel-efficiency standards have ultimately led to more driving (and increased congestion), does Mendez think that lowering carbon emissions from the transportation sector should be a goal of the upcoming climate change bill?

Theoretically, it should have been easy for Mendez to endorse that concept, especially on the same day that his future boss blogged on the benefits of transit. But if the future highways chief encouraged decreasing transportation emissions, then -- horrors! -- he might be open to the transit sector's plea for a share of the emissions allocations in the climate bill.

So Mendez wavered again, deferring to Transportation Secretary LaHood. "I think he's going to yield to you for advice on this," Carper said, asking his question one more time.

One more time, Mendez ducked the query. Finally, he asked the senator if reducing transportation-related emissions implied endorsing a specific policy or a general goal. When Carper replied that a general goal was all Mendez would need to endorse, the nominee did so -- in measured tones.

Perhaps it's too much to ask that a former leader of the highway-building lobby be more openly committed to decreasing the environmental impact of transportation, which accounts for a third of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

But if Mendez can't bring himself to openly support the "complete streets" plan backed by President Obama, and if he couldn't sign on to a specific policy for reducing emissions, it's worth asking whether he supports national climate legislation in the first place. And if he doesn't, what's he doing in the administration?

Late Update: It's worth noting that Mendez was first appointed to the Arizona DOT's top spot by a Republican, then-Gov. Jane Dee Hull.