IN MEMORIAM: David G. Burwell 1947-2017

David Burwell served as policy advisor for TFN’s Transportation Reform Funders Group from 2009-2013.

We lost David Burwell on Feb. 1 to a three-year battle with cancer. He was 69 and, as many of you know, was a founder of Rails to Trails and later served as transportation advisor to TFN for several years.

I had the great good fortune of working side-by-side with David, leading TFN’s Transportation Reform Funders’ Group (TRFG) from 2009 to 2013. David was tireless, helping funders understand what was at stake on transportation issues and how to become engaged. He spent most of his life successfully demonstrating why transportation is like air: It affects everything.

David had a rare combination of qualities. On the one hand, he was playful and wry. On the other hand, the man was thorough and dogged. I seriously doubt he ever took a day in which he simply did nothing. He was a lawyer by training, with an attorney’s eye for deep detail. He was a teacher by instinct, able to put a human face on transportation issues — starting with his contribution to the 1970s book, The End of the Road: A Citizen’s Guide to Transportation Problem-solving. Long before it was common to view transportation infrastructure as a divider of race and class, David explained what 1960s highway construction actually meant for people, communities and race relations. The Rails to Trails Conservancy, of which David was a co-founder, called him a visionary, noting the “the world lost a passionate conservationist and environmentalist.”

His engaging style and passion hooked many a young advocate on transportation policy, including my husband, James Corless. I first met David in 2004 and I had good reason to dislike him from the outset. David flew from D.C. into Oakland, where James and I lived.  The three of us went to dinner. He explained calmly and rationally that James, then a transportation advocate in California, was needed in Washington for a temporary policy gig. Could he please start the next week? I was aghast. James and I were engaged to be married (in California!) and all I could contemplate was that living apart was not part of my marital plans.

That evening, David did what David did best: He made me feel really good about doing the right thing for the cause, even if that meant sending my fiancé 3,000 miles east. Eventually, James returned, we were married, had kids and – voila! – four years later, David came calling again. At another dinner in Oakland, David again wanted to know: Would James move to D.C. again, this time for good? There was a new group called Transportation for America and James was needed …

Sprinkled by that fairy dust only David possessed, James and I said, “We’re in!”

The rest is history. I later had the privilege of working with David as advisors to TFN’s Transportation Reform Funders Group (TRFG), where his enthusiasm and deep knowledge helped many funders see how transportation affected the issues about which they cared.

I was looking through my emails recently to find some examples of David’s knack for writing about dense policy details with catchy, understandable language. To wit, some TRFG quotes from Mr. Burwell:

• “It was a very good piece of legislation, except it was mugged at the finish line.”

• Of another legal effort, he wrote: “Well, the best we can say about this bill is that the Wall Street Journal doesn’t like it either – for a very good reason — because it doesn’t explain where the money comes from…”

• And later, mindful, as ever, that proposed laws are only improved when shaped by outside voices, he wrote: “The best news is that the reform coalition and its 400+ partners were a real force to be reckoned with in this bill….”

I am sure that somewhere in the dictionary, under the phrase, “brilliant mensch,” there is a picture of David Burwell. There is a smile on his face, and in his hand is a book about transportation. From his lips spring funny, erudite words explaining why you, dear listener, ought to get involved in the transportation fight right now.

Ride the train in peace, dear David. We will miss you more than we can say.


Photo: David Burwell with his wife Irene and mother Barbara in 2002 | Courtesy Rails-to-Trails Conservancy