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Which Mitt Would Shape U.S. Transpo Policy: The Governor or the Candidate?

Tomorrow, Americans will decide who will be President of the United States for the next four years. On Friday, we took a look at the last four years of White House transportation policy under President Barack Obama. Today we review the record and the platform of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Streetsblog does not endorse candidates.
Mitt Romney's progressive and well-reasoned views on energy and development have morphed into a lovefest for fossil fuels as he set his sets on the White House. Photo courtesy of Mitt Romney for President.

If Mitt Romney the President reverts back to the positions of Mitt Romney the Governor, transportation policy in America could see significant steps forward. Better-maintained roads. Smarter growth. Cleaner air.

But if Mitt Romney the President follows through on the rhetoric of Mitt Romney the Campaigner, it will be a different story.

Not that candidate Romney has talked much about transportation. But he’s made it clear he’s casting his lot with the fossil fuel industry. He’s brought billionaire oil man Harold Hamm into his inner circle as an energy advisor, pushing for more drilling. Romney has raised $11.4 million directly from the energy sector, and far more than that has been poured into anti-Obama, pro-drilling TV ads by oil companies.

What did the oil industry get for their generosity? For starters, Romney’s energy plan reads like a parody of desperate political pandering to Texas oil barons. Maximum drilling is paramount. Reducing oil consumption is a quaint little notion for liberals and sweater-wearers. To candidate Romney, the idea of reversing climate change and slowing the rise of the oceans is a laugh line – a joke that suddenly doesn’t seem so funny to people living by the New Jersey and New York coastline.

Romney is now the standard-bearer for a Republican Party whose platform accuses President Obama of engaging in “social engineering” in pursuit of “an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.” The GOP platform indulges in Agenda 21 paranoia and doesn't talk much about renewable energy or fuel efficiency. It brags about the worst parts of the recently-passed transportation bill, revives old calls for the privatization of Amtrak services, and cheers on highway-builders.

Romney himself has advocated for ending subsidies to Amtrak and eliminating the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And by nominating extreme budget-cutter Representative Paul Ryan to be his running mate, Romney aligned himself with a plan to cut transportation spending to Highway Trust Fund levels, slashing about a third of the current budget.

At one of the presidential debates, Romney perpetuated the latest conservative myth about gas prices, saying, “If the president’s energy policies are working, you’re going to see the cost of energy come down.” (That debate exchange wasn’t Obama’s best moment either; when Candy Crowley pressed him, he refused to directly refute the notion that it's “within the purview of the government to bring [gas] prices down.”)

It's a shame to hear Romney talk like this, because as governor of blue-state Massachusetts, he had a far more nuanced and forward-looking analysis of gas prices. Alec MacGillis, writing in The New Republic this spring with an excellent analysis of Romney’s years as governor, said that Romney refused to cave to pressure for a gas tax holiday when prices were high in 2006. “I don’t think that now is the time, and I’m not sure there will be the right time, for us to encourage the use of more gasoline,” Romney said then. “I’m very much in favor of people recognizing that these high gasoline prices are probably here to stay.” That’s a refreshing dose of realism.

Romney enacted real policy innovations while in office, too. He brought conservationist and bike commuter Doug Foy on to run the Office for Commonwealth Development, embarking on a path of smart growth. All this “really woolly, totally green, new-urbanist stuff” was official state policy under Governor Romney, Boston Globe-writer-turned-Foy-employee Anthony Flint told MacGillis.

Together, Romney and Foy prioritized transportation maintenance over new infrastructure, tamed high-speed local streets, increased housing density, cut sprawl, and advocated for progressive zoning. Romney tried to move Massachusetts past the era of the Big Dig highway boondoggle and said all the right things about avoiding the construction of excessively wide roads.

While he didn’t keep all his promises about building transit, some have speculated that, in keeping with his fix-it-first ethos, Romney was right to focus more on transit repair than new capacity.

He cared about fuel efficiency, scorning the “gas guzzling dinosaurs” his automaker father taught him to hate. But then he stopped following through. At the last minute, he got cold feet about a regional cap-and-trade tax plan and killed the proposal his staff had spent two years negotiating. The New York Times wrote a story this fall about that decision and other environmental flip-flops the governor made when he started eyeing the presidency.

It's fascinating to speculate about how Romney might shape American transportation policy if he applied some of his early advances in Massachusetts to the nation's problems. But it's been a long time since Governor Romney has been spotted on the campaign trail.

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