Four Republicans Who Might Work Across the Aisle on Transportation

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article included Robert Dold as the fifth potential aisle-crosser. I’ve since been informed that Dold lost his re-election bid this year. Charlie Bass and Judy Biggert, named briefly at the bottom for supporting the Senate transportation bill and Amtrak funding, also lost their elections, making this list even shorter.

First Rep. Tim Johnson of Illinois announced his retirement. Then Ohio’s Rep. Steve LaTourette said he couldn’t take the petty gridlock anymore and followed suit.

They belonged to a disappearing class: moderate Republicans in the House of Representatives. And they were both known for recognizing the value of investments in transit, biking, and walking.

Johnson, a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, split with his party in supporting dedicated bike/ped funding and funding flexibility for transit agencies. And LaTourette, who left T&I to be vice-chair on the Transportation and HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, was a loud voice against the GOP plan to eliminate federal transit funding.

They’ll be missed for many reasons, but chief among them is this: In a Republican-controlled body, legislation needs at least one Republican co-sponsor to go anywhere. Any bill that benefits transit, biking, or walking can usually count on some Democratic support, but if it’s not at least nominally bipartisan, it will be essentially dead on arrival. These two lawmakers were often brave enough to reach across the aisle and co-sponsor those bills.

Who will do that in the next Congress? Streetsblog set out to identify the moderate Republicans in the House who might forge some solid, bipartisan transportation legislation, or at least keep bad ideas from getting too much momentum. After all, it was Republicans who helped torpedo the worst parts of the House transportation bill this year. These representatives could still make an impact in a chamber where the leadership remains hostile to transportation reform.

Photo: Tom Petri poses with the Wisconsin Bike Federation's Hero Award. Photo: Wendy Soucie/Lodi Valley News

Tom Petri. The T&I member from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is one of the most outspoken bicycling supporters in the House from either party. He co-chairs Earl Blumenauer’s Congressional Bike Caucus. I once heard him tell a group of bike advocates, “We are engaged in a bipartisan war against couch potatoes here in the United States.” If that war really is bipartisan, it’s mostly because of Tom Petri.

Petri introduced an amendment [PDF] to protect funding for bicycling and walking in the trainwreck that was the House transportation bill, H.R. 7. The amendment failed and Petri ended up being the only Republican to vote against H.R. 7 in committee (which was as far as it got), though he says he voted against it “primarily because it slashed highway funding for Wisconsin.” Petri also ensured that metro areas with small transit systems would continue to have the flexibility to allocate federal transit funds to operating costs.

On the other hand, Petri hasn’t taken a strong stance against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s decision to send high-speed rail funds back to the federal government and, in fact, co-sponsored legislation that would have directed those returned funds toward deficit reduction, not other rail projects.

LoBiondo, here touring storm damage in New Jersey, has bucked his party on some transportation issues. Photo: NJ.com

Frank LoBiondo. The New Jersey Republican is on the Aviation Subcommittee, so surface transportation types haven’t gotten to know him all that well. But he’s quietly been crossing party lines in support of some really progressive stuff. He was one of only three Republicans to vote for Petri’s amendment to preserve bike/ped spending in H.R. 7 – the other two are Petri himself and the retiring Tim Johnson. The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin said the three “withstood major pressure from the chairman and leadership, and turned down deals rather than give up their support for cycling.”

LoBiondo also co-sponsored a complete streets bill and signed a recent letter to DOT asking for biking and walking safety measures. He was one of the few Republicans (again, along with Johnson – that guy sure will be missed) to support an amendment allowing transit agencies to use capital funding for operations in hard economic times.

Rep. Vern Buchanan has been plagued by an ethics scandal, but reformers are still grateful to him for fighting for transit. Photo: House of Representatives

Vern Buchanan. Representing Sarasota and the stretch between Tampa/St. Pete’s and Fort Myers in Florida, Buchanan serves on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, where the proposal to eliminate dedicated federal transit funding had its genesis early this year. Buchanan was one of only two Republicans to vote against the proposal (Minnesota’s Erik Paulsen was the other). Buchanan voted in favor of a bill in 2008 to devote $850 million for grants to expand public transportation without raising fares, to jump-start the use of alternative fuels in transit, and to support commuter matching services. And in 2010, Buchanan was the sole Republican co-sponsor of an ultimately unsuccessful resolution to designate the fourth week in April as “National Streetscaping Week” in support of transit-oriented development, biking and walking, and public space.

Rep. Richard Hanna is in favor of Portland's urban growth boundary. Photo: WKTV

Richard Hanna. The freshman Republican comes up on everyone’s list of reasonable GOP members, though he more or less toed the party line on H.R. 7. Still, Democrats think he’s a thoughtful moderate. He was named to T&I and immediately promoted to vice-chair of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee ahead of many committee veterans, perhaps as a way to elevate the freshman class without having to install one of its right-wing firebrands in the role. He was also a conferee who negotiated the final bill.

I interviewed Hanna just days after he was sworn into office. He had a somewhat toned-down version of a lot of Republican talking points: transit should pay for itself, biking and walking is a local concern – but he also let me know he was a Reed College grad and he admired some of the transportation planning Portland had done, including the urban growth boundary.

Some other names that came up while I asked around about possible House co-sponsors of good transportation legislation included Mike Simpson of Idaho, who cares about water infrastructure; Frank Wolf from Northern Virginia, Charlie Dent from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, and Miami’s Mario Diaz-Balart, all of whom served with LaTourette on the THUD Appropriations Subcommittee and represent urban areas; and Alaska’s Don Young, a key architect of SAFETEA-LU and representative of a state with surprisingly high rates of biking and walking.

Who’s missing from this list? Are there other Republicans that transportation reformers should be courting? Leave your thoughts in the comments.