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 

  • Larry Littlefield

    I went through all the candidate’s positions on energy/environment, and was going to write about it on Room 8, but after reading them decided not to bother. You can read my views there.

    Essentially, all the Democrats propose a “cap and trade” system (which presumably would favor existing companies) to reduce carbon emissions, along with rules and subsidies to have the lawyers in Washington decide what to do. Bicycles are not mentioned.

    The Republicans come up with a long list of things they will do, but fail to give any indications how they will do them. You think they would propose a market solution — use the tax system to make fossil fuels expensive and allow people and companies to decide for themselves how to solve the problem. But they don’t.

    They don’t mention bicycles or walking either.

    All in all, I’d rather not have energy and transportation policy decided in Washington.

  • We did this one a few weeks ago, covering energy and climate positions (and transportation where mentioned) of both sides of the aisle



  • galvo

    NYS has effectively ruled out the trial of alt transportation with gov spitzer recent outlawing of segways on public roadways. segways may not be the answer to everything, but they are a good step away from a carcentric culture, especially in area where the hills make bicycle use difficult. Housing projects are still being designed as carcentric, built with thousands of spaces reserved for automobiles, no thought to possible alttrans rooms
    many towns in the hudson valley fit into the train station down a steep hill but within range of the current segways.
    i guess the loss of gas tax revenue is one of the reasons the governor and anti alternative trans people don’t want segways.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Whaddya mean no agenda? Low fuel prices AND high tech, high mileage, super cars. It is a lot like the opponents of both Congestion Pricing AND MTA fare increases. Modern equipment, high level of service, no standing room and low fare cost with no visible tax support. That sounds like an agenda to me. Having my cake and eating it too. Don’t say thats not an agenda.

  • Moser

    Oh good, Segway freaks now showing up here.

  • Mark

    Steve, thanks for the links. That was enlightening.

  • No problem, Mark. Wish the news was as good on both sides of the aisle.

  • So sad that our private urban railways were defeated by subsidized government roads but now conservatives and libertarians talk about the unfair subsidies public transit gets. Mass transit used to be private! It didn’t die because people liked cars that much more, it died because cars got an unfair advantage of the form of endless government subsidies for the roads that make them usable. How could rail compete when rail companies had to buy their own right of ways build their own tracks etc etc. A true libertarian would realize that the car culture is a direct result of government intervention, not the other way around. See my post on the Democratic side to see how FDR’s new deal helped set the foundation for the car culture.


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