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Dukakis To Transportation Nation: You Were "Dead Wrong" on Romney and Infrastructure

Monday, August 20, 2012 - 05:12 PM

If given a forum, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis (and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee) can dish out some sharp criticism of Mitt Romney's infrastructure record. He calls it "disappointing" and "pathetic." Last week I sent him an email that referenced my infrastructure reporting here on Transportation Nation. And today I got a dose of his blunt assessments. He told me I was "dead wrong."
When I reviewed the transportation policy of Dukakis' fellow former governor of Massachusetts and current presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, I found he was a metro-friendly moderate with a focus on fixing what already existed. Dukakis disagrees.
He wrote:

"You were dead wrong. When Romney left the governorship, the state was a wreck-- rusting bridges, potholed roads, a great transit system that had serious financial problems he refused to fix, and a pathetic inability to get anything done. Projects that should have taken months took years, and his " fix it first" program was a joke."

He also offered to talk with me on the phone to offer more details. Full transcript of that below. This communication follows Dukakis' latest bout of criticism for Romney which aired on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow show last week.

Dukakis said flatly that after Romney’s four years as Governor “the state’s infrastructure, Rachel, was a wreck. That’s the only way you can describe it. Rusting bridges, potholed roads, couldn’t get anything done.” He later got slightly more specific by saying “bridge projects that should have taken eighteen months were taking four and five and six years. He couldn’t get anything done.”

This conflicted with my review in December of Romney's tenure. I found reason to praise Governor Romney’s record on transportation—specifically his focus, in a twenty-year statewide plan released in 2005, on repair and maintenance. The plan directed at least 75 percent of all new capital spending toward maintaining and improving the Commonwealth’s existing network, “consistent with the Romney administration’s ‘Fix-It-First’ policy," the release said.

We will of course continue to assess the candidates' records ourselves, which will include reaching out for comment from those Dukakis criticizes below. (When Dukakis took a swipe at Romney two years ago, a Romney spokesperson simply shot back that "Mike Dukakis sounds like a very angry and bitter old man.”)

But Dukakis' elaborations are worth noting. He shares two key resume bullet points with Romney and as this edited transcript shows, a passion for potholes ... and bridges and transit, and most of all Mitt Romney's record.

Edited transcript:

Dellinger: Governor, I would love to have you elaborate on the comments you made about Romney's record on infrastructure. I had the impression — mind you, at a time when you see some Republican Governors actively canceling high-speed rail and tunnel projects — that Romney was decent on transportation, that he at least talked a good game about the importance of maintenance and transit.

Dukakis: I guess he did. But Romney is one of the great disappointments to me. I mean, I was a huge fan of his dad’s. And in fact, truth be know, I courted Kitty in little yellow Rambler convertible in the early 60s, because George Romney was the only guy in Detroit making a small, fuel-efficient car. And George was a fine governor and a darn good Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (an agency his kid wants to abolish), and in fact some of my best housing people worked for him at HUD and were big fans of his. He was one of those prototypical, better than just moderate republicans. He was a doer, he believed in this stuff, thought it was important, and that government had a role to play.

When Mitt first arrived on the scene, as a [Senate] candidate against [Ted] Kennedy, he sounded very much like his dad, in the best sense. And when he became governor, we all assumed this guy is going to be George Romney Junior. And to this day I really don't understand this guy. His economic record was a disaster. Fourth from bottom in job creation. And just a lot of talk and no action. He just didn't seem to understand how to a Governor moves an economy, and especially the economy of the old older urban communities in the state, which is where we have the most economic stress. Or the role of infrastructure in stimulating that.

But on the infrastructure stuff itself, the guy was just really pathetic. I mean, I was all for the fix-it first thing. I think you got a fix it first before you start new stuff, although there were a number of new projects that we wanted to move on. But he was kind of detached. He had a very weak transportation team. It was a guy named Daniel Grabauskas who was the secretary of transportation, who now of all things has been hired to run the Honolulu transit system. Don't ask me what they expect him to do out there. But he was very ineffective, very weak. They just couldn't get anything done. Projects that should have taken months took years.

And as you know, here in the state it's not just the highways, but it's the Metropolitan transit system and the commuter rail system. We had stations, T stations, that were under reconstruction for years under this guy. And I'll tell you one story which is typical. The Ashmont station on the red line is a big station in the Dorchester section of Boston. And it was kind of an old station and so they're going to do a major reconstruction and do some transit-oriented development there. So a team was designated to do affordable housing next to Ashmont Station. And they did it. In about 18 months it was up and running, leased and all that stuff. The station project, which went way over budget, went on and on and on. And at some press conference some reporter asked Romney, 'What about Ashmont?' Romney had no idea where Ashmont station was.

You know he's always been a puzzle to me. So we ended up with bridge projects that should have taken twelve months that were taking three or four years. When I said the state's infrastructure was a wreck when he left it, that was not an exaggeration I remember driving up 128, and honest to God nine out of ten bridges were covered with rust. I mean they couldn't even paint bridges. And as you know, if you don't paint the bridge for 200,000 bucks, pretty soon you're gonna have a reconstruction job for 3 million. They couldn't do it. He was kind of detached. And then of course in his last year and a half, it was all about the presidency, so we never saw him.

And look, I had the best state transportation Sec. in the country. I mean nobody's better than Fred Salvucci. Fred's just remarkable, and we did billions of dollars worth of construction, completely redid the T, and all this kind of stuff. We were deeply involved, he and I, in the fight to kill the master highway plan and shift some money to public transportation, which we were able to do. So it's a big thing with me, but Romney just couldn't do it.

Dellinger: But let me just challenge you. Talking about a governor's record, isn't there a delayed effect, especially when it comes to visible signs of transportation improvements? In fact, you even said it's going to take Gov. Deval Patrick his full two terms to fix all of this. But you're judging Romney on only one term.

Dukakis: Yeah but Patrick has turned this economy around. Were really moving around here. And Patrick has worked it. I mean worked it. Intensively. He hasn't been fooling around on this life sciences stuff. And it's working. Metropolitan Boston is just popping with activity. Patrick has been fully engaged in this, and actively so. Romney never was. I mean I don't want to go on anecdotally at great length, but one of the things a number of us suggested to Romney was that he do what I—and of course Deval has done a number of times, and that is take a major state project and put it in a distressed area as a stimulus for revitalization. When I was governor we did this a lot in our older urban communities.

One of the proposals we made to him—and in fact I met with him personally, the only time I met with him was early in his term—was take the state Department of public health, which had about 1000 employees and was occupying expensive downtown office space, and move them to the Dudley section of Boston, which is Roxbury, which is now in the process of revival thanks to the mayor. But putting 1000 state employees in the new building, or a reconstructed building would have been a huge stimulus for this revitalization. And a bunch of us went in to see him. He certainly understood it. Never produced. Just never produced. Whether he didn't get it, or didn't understand it. And in fact he would've saved the state money. Rents out there are a lot cheaper than they were in downtown Boston. Just another example of the guys inability either to understand how you do this, or to execute, or something. But Patrick, in his first term, has turned this thing around.

Dellinger: I guess what I'm getting at is that with infrastructure a governor faces not just challenges that started when he first took office. The bridges are rusting because we built a lot of things right after World War II that were last that were meant to last 50 years, and the egg timers all went off at the same time.

Dukakis: To be sure. But what does it take to paint a bridge?

Dellinger: Well even today Massachusetts is suffering under the weight of having to pay debt service on the Big Dig. Romney spoke of moving the state to it's post-Big-Dig future, focusing on repairs. But there simply wasn't a lot of money to go around. 

Dukakis: Well, no. And the Big Dig was the result of sheer incompetence. I mean if Salvucci had been running that job it would have been done in half the time at half the cost. Trust me. And in fact I suggested to Weld when he took over that he ask Fred to stay on just to run the Big Dig. Well he rejected that advice. Fine and dandy. Then he picked a guy to run it was just utterly incompetent. But I'm not blaming Romney for the Big Dig. I mean that was largely the fault of Weld. But I'm not talking in terms of huge projects. I'm talking about bridge painting. I'm talking about bridge reconstructions, those kinds of things. Romney just couldn't do it. Just couldn't get it done. He didn't seem to be engaged. Didn't seem to understand the importance of it. Wasn't personally into it. And had a very very weak transportation team.

Dellinger: Can you point to specific things that you did, and that Gov. Patrick maybe is now doing, that were different, on a day-to-day level, with transportation? 

Dukakis: Well first you got to pick good people. Got to pick good people. And then secondly you have to be personally into it. I mean I was just all over this thing. Now it happens to be a particular interest of mine. It's something I go way back on. I don't know whether you're familiar with the history of this place, but like everyone other metropolitan area, we were told that in order to solve our problems coming out of World War II in the sixties and seventies that we had to build a so-called master highway plan that involved eight lane expressway's into the heart of the city. I thought it was a prescription for disaster. And meanwhile the T was falling apart. It was a basket case.

Fred Salvucci and I were deeply involved in the 60s—I was a young legislator at the time—in ultimately fighting and killing the master Highway plan. We were the first state in the country, thanks to [Speaker of the House] Tip O'Neill, to be able to use our previously designated interstate highway money for public transportation. It had never been done before. This was back in the time when you couldn't bust the Highway trust fund had to be gasoline tax money had to be used for highways. And so Fred and I had literally about $3 billion in former highway money.

This was the mid-70s. When Ford, who was quite good on the stuff by the way, was President, and then Carter. But it was Tip and the congressional delegation that obviously made it possible for us to do that. And so we basically just did a huge job on the T. I mean massive modernization. We acquired the existing commuter rail system from the private railroads for a song and used the highway money to transform that. It's now carrying 150,000 people a day. That's just commuter rail not to mention the T itself. All stations, total reconstructions. And you know today we've got one of the best public transportation systems in the country, and it's made a huge huge difference. So I both as a legislator and the governor was into this and deeply committed to it.

Dellinger: I agree that where money is appropriated, to what mode, is a very key factor in determining outcome. And when I looked into Romney's budget, he did seem to put his dollars where his mouth was. 

Dukakis: Just couldn't execute. That was his problem. Couldn't execute.

Dellinger: That sounds so subjective, though. What exactly does that mean? 

Dukakis: He couldn't get it done.

Dellinger: His DOT couldn't get things done... on time?

Dukakis: He just wasn't engaged. I mean that's Romney. He's kind of out there someplace. He just doesn't get into it. For one thing I rode the T. It wasn't an act. I was riding it since I was five. It's amazing what you learn when you ride the transit system. And you know, I'm a huge national rail passenger guy. I was on the Amtrak board. Romney has just announced he's for abolishing, getting rid of all Amtrak subsidies. I don't know what the hell he's talking about. Is he serious? Amtrak just carried 30 million people this past year. I mean if this country doesn't need a first-class national rail passenger system, I don't know what it does need.

Dellinger: Paul Ryan's budget opines that "“high-speed rail and other new intercity rail projects should be pursued only if they can be established as self-supporting commercial services.” I assume you disagree that all new rail projects should be done as profitable businesses only?

Dukakis: There's no profitable— Well, we are making money on the Northeast corridor and the Acela. But were spending $40 billion in public subsidies on highways, $16 billion on air, and a billion and a half on Amtrak. Don't these guys understand? I mean where are they? I don't know what the hell they're talking about. Every mode of transportation, as you know, is subsidized. And rail and highway's and air are far more heavily subsidized than rail.

You go to Europe you go to Japan—Kitty and I went to South Korea a year ago where I'd been stationed back in the mid-50s—and it's embarrassing coming back from the United States after you've been over there. My God, they've got the best airport in the country, terrific transit in Seoul. Two high-speed rail lines. Couldn't find my unit in the DMZ because there's a huge new commuter rail station in what used to be a rice paddy when I was there. And here we are just stumbling around. I mean I just don't know what these guys are talking about.

Anyway that's my take on it, for whatever it's worth.

 

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Comments [3]

Omri

Those of you who don't live in Boston might not know that Governor Dukakis rides public transit almost every day. It's natural that he would set a high bar for himself as governor, and for his successors, and one could forgive Romney for failing to meet it. But this is beyond that. The governorship was just a stepping stone to Romney, and he was undeniably lacking in diligence in carrying out the governor's duties.

Aug. 31 2012 03:09 PM
PY Samer

From the Dukakis criticism of the Romney infrastructure completion record in MA, it sounds like the same school of project management as in White Plains NY / Westchester County NY two decade freeway boondoggle.

Aug. 28 2012 01:36 PM
Anne Zak

Romney was in the State House as a stepping stone to his current endeavor. He did not have the heart to be a good Governor and did not have the good sense to follow his predecessors suggestion. Salvucci was the man. That one simple decision could have saved the State millions. Fred Salvucci was a practical visionary capable of communicating, compromising, mediating and enacting decisions that were in the best interests of his fellow citizens. So was the Duke. In terms of transportation policy, Romney was an abysmal failure. One that could have been avoided but for his partisanship and closed mind. Hopefully the voters in Massachusetts will spot a snake oil salesman the next time he\she comes riding down the Pike.

Aug. 24 2012 03:07 PM

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