Romney Wins Iowa, Loses the Rail-Passenger Vote

Mitt Romney won Iowa by 8 votes a day after making a weak argument against federal funding of Amtrak. Photo: Getty Images

In a landslide (er, eight-vote) victory over former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucus last night, Mitt Romney solidified his lead over the rag-tag field of GOP nominees. He also took an opportunity, the day before the caucus, to make a tired old argument against public support of passenger rail service.

I gotta cap federal spending, and then I’ve got to balance the budget. Now how do you go about doing that?

[Brief heckling interlude]

My view is this: What you do to get our budget in line is you say this. You take all the programs the federal government has, and you say, “Which of these programs is so critical that we gotta have it?” And those things we keep.

But those programs that don’t pass the following test we gotta get rid of, and this is my test: Is this program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And on that basis we’ll get rid of some programs, even some we like.

[Takes an easy shot at "Obamacare".]

And there’s some other things — look, Amtrak ought to stand on its own feet or its own wheels or whatever you’d say. And I like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities but I’m not willing to borrow money from China to pay for it.

(Hat tip to Transportation Nation for breaking the story and providing the audio.)

In this brief moment, Romney staked out several positions that distinguish him from the rest of the pack. First, he acknowledged the existence of federal programs worth keeping — not something many Republicans want to do in these slash-and-burn days. And second, he actually mentioned transportation, which most of the field has completely ignored.

But Romney did echo the mainstream GOP attack on public rail subsidies, which help maintain money-losing lines (through conservative, Republican-voting, rural country) that the government mandates it to run as a public service. In so doing, Romney ignores Amtrak’s record ridership and the enormous success of its Northeast Corridor service, which reduces air pollution and traffic congestion along the country’s most heavily-traveled corridor. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting to hear any Republican candidate say roads ought to pay for themselves too. (Incentive: The first one who does gets a late Streetsie award for uncommon bravery.)

Though Romney’s win last night was anemic and potentially embarrassing, considering the fact that he nearly lost against someone who until very recently was destined for also-ran status, he’s positioned to clean up next week in New Hampshire and run a more consistent nationwide campaign than any of his opponents.

If this speech illustrates Romney’s true view on public transportation — that it has to pay for itself — advocates have a lot of work to do in educating him before he goes head-to-head with Obama for the White House.