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No Clear Transpo Agenda From GOP Presidential Candidates

Mitt Romney at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit

This is part one of a two-part series on where candidates for president stand on transportation issues, authored by Streetsblog Los Angeles correspondent Damien Newton. Damien currently runs the blog Street Heat, which is soon to become Streetsblog L.A., our first foray into foreign territory. Damien was New Jersey coordinator for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign before relocating to California last year. Here, he examines the platforms and records of the Republican presidential candidates.

For Republicans vying for the White House, transportation reform isn’t couched in terms of fixing the environment or cutting carbon emissions, but in reducing dependency on foreign oil. Promoting alternatives to car culture is not something any of these candidates want to take up.

The closest thing to an exception is John McCain. The senator is the only Republican candidate who recognizes climate change as an issue worthy of space on his web site. Recently, McCain resisted the knee-jerk reaction of promising to subsidize or prop up the auto industry, and he has been an advocate for higher fuel economy standards for automobiles -- two positions that may have cost him the Michigan primary. However, McCain’s recognition of the environmental and economic effects of auto dependency has not translated into a platform of transportation reform. Senator McCain made a name for himself as an outspoken critic of Amtrak. While the agency could doubtless be more efficient, McCain’s fear of government waste led to setbacks of high speed rail expansion and his supporting of the Bush Administration’s plan to segment Amtrak into several local rail agencies. The senator did stop short of calling for the agency to be shut-down completely.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt "cars in my blood" Romney, meanwhile, has a mixed record on transportation spending, all "Big Dig" jokes aside. He changed spending patterns from expansion to "Fix-It-First," purchased more fuel-efficient and clean transit buses, and used smart growth funds to increase bike-ped access to transit. At the same time, he pushed an MBTA fare hike and slashed funding for parks, even as he used conservation funds to hail the New England Patriots.

Romney’s administration also earned the scorn of cyclists for vetoing legislation that "called for training police to uniformly enforce laws covering both bicyclists and motorists." (At least his kids are avid cyclists.) Candidate Romney can be somewhat baffling on transportation related issues. Take global warming, where he frames his plans to reduce emissions in terms of foreign oil, refers to the debate about man’s role in climate change, and promises to maybe reduce greenhouse gas emissions all in the same article. Romney is also an outspoken advocate of drilling for oil in Alaska’s ANWR region.

A couple of months ago, I couldn’t even find a mention of transportation on Rudy Giuliani’s web site, despite his most recent position as mayor of the transit capital of America. Giuliani’s web team now has a section on energy independence, which amazingly manages to avoid mentioning transportation except to note that "Every gallon of gas and electricity we do not use is energy we do not import and pollution we reduce."

While candidate Rudy may be trying to avoid transportation talk, he has a notable history on the issue. Though his administration dabbled with alternative transportation initiatives, occasionally embracing traffic calming or opening new bike lanes, the overall record was not a progressive one. Ideas such as his temporary ban on pedestrian crossings or his appointment of no-show political cronies to the MTA board led to continually failing marks

from transportation reformers. But he did earn praise from one transportation advocate on his way out of office when, in the aftermath of 9-11, Mayor Giuliani banned single passenger vehicles from the streets of New York to temporarily ease congestion.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee proposed using the $150 billion that will be spent on the most recent tax rebate plan to build "two new lanes of highway on I-95 between Maine and Florida." Huckabee has a long record of pushing road expansion. He claims that his highway expansion projects earned the praise of "Trucking Magazine," who labeled Arkansas’ roads the "worst in the country" at the start of his term and then labeled the same roads "most improved" by the end of his term.

This claim was examined by the St. Petersburg Times, which found the statement to be partially true. The most obvious problem is that there is no such magazine as "Trucking Magazine," but Huckabee was probably referring to Overdrive, a magazine that reports on truckers’ surveys.

While the vast majority of Huckabee’s transportation record was centered around adding road capacity, he does earn some points by making drivers pay for their own improvements by increasing the state’s gas tax.

Maybe because he wasn’t an early front-runner, Huckabee’s web site has even less on transportation than that of other Republican candidates. He does promise that "the first thing I will do as President is send Congress my comprehensive plan for energy independence." Unfortunately, I couldn’t find details on what that plan actually is.

All in all, it’s not a very encouraging picture from the Republican side of the field. Each candidate has something in his past that could offer reason to hope that he wouldn’t be a disaster for transportation reforms, but overall the records aren’t exactly a promise of "Morning in America" for alternative transportation.

This Thursday, January 31, NYU's Wagner Rudin Center will host a transportation and infrastructure forum, moderated by "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz, to which all Republican and Democratic candidates have been invited. 

Photo: GM Blogs/Flickr 

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