Mitt Romney: Metro-Friendly Moderate?

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Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on December 6, 2011 in Paradise Valley, AZ. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Pop quiz: What national political figure, as one of his first acts as chief executive, created a new agency tasked with coordinating housing, transportation, and energy policy in the pursuit of “smart-growth” development? Hint: in his four years as leader, this politician championed a fix-it-first infrastructure strategy and awarded taxpayer-funded grants to communities dedicated to sustainability, insisting that, “by targeting development to areas where there is already infrastructure in place, not only can we revitalize our older communities, but we can also curb sprawl as well.”

If you said President Barack Obama, that’s understandable—Obama also believes in fixing existing infrastructure and curbing sprawl, and he also created an agency to bring together housing, transportation, and energy policy—but that's not who we're describing.

The sprawl curber in question was, in fact, one of the the president’s potential challengers, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. In 2003, shortly after taking office, Romney created a state Office of Commonwealth Development, which—like Obama’s Federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities—broke down the silos separating livability issues and made policy out of smart-growth ideas.

The OCD’s criteria (PDF) for public grants read like a new urbanist handbook. Successful projects should “provide transportation choice,” by being “walkable to public transportation,” the guide said. A good plan “reduces dependence on automobiles by providing increased pedestrian and bicycle access.”

But those were the ideas championed by the governor of a fairly liberal northeastern state, not those of a presidential hopeful vying for the nomination of an increasingly conservative party. Recently, Romney has been reminding debate audiences, opponents, and interviewers almost constantly that he doesn’t believe that what was good for Massachusetts is necessarily a prescription for the nation. He’s proud of his record, he says, but his emphasis has changed.

For one, he’s become an energy hawk, calling for the immediate approval of the Keystone oil pipeline. “Oil is obviously one of our most crucial energy resources and the single most important fuel for our transportation needs,” says his online campaign platform (PDF), which calls for increased domestic oil production and an amendment to the Clean Air Act to exclude the regulation of carbon.

This is the same Mitt Romney who in the spring of 2004 unveiled Massachusetts' first Climate Protection Plan (PDF), saying: “The same policies that protect the climate also promote energy efficiency, smart business practices, and improve the environment in which our citizens live and work. For Massachusetts, promoting climate protection in the Commonwealth and throughout our nation also promotes Massachusetts businesses that are at the forefront of the new markets for renewable energy technologies.”

Romney has made the creation of jobs a central pillar of his campaign, but he’s keen to trim the federal payroll—in the transportation sector, among others. In late September Romney opined in the New Hampshire Union Leader (a paper that went on to endorse Newt Gingrich) that “Amtrak is a classic example” of the many “functions that the private sector can perform better than the public sector.”

This conviction may come in part from a transition he witnessed as Governor. Just before Romney took office, Amtrak declined to bid to renew its operations of Boston’s commuter rail system, and a newly formed consortium, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company, took over the nation’s fifth-largest regional rail network in the summer of 2003.

But the deal hardly serves as a success story for privatization. Mass Bay, as it is known, is paid more than $250 million a year to manage the railroad, and the company came under harsh scrutiny recently when it came to light that the MBTA, the public transportation authority that funds that contract, waived millions of dollars in penalties the private company was supposed to have paid for slow service. Despite Mass Bay’s performance issues, the consortium’s contract was extended for two years in January.

Romney played no role in awarding or extending the Mass Bay contract, and he made no moves to privatize city trains and buses operated by the MBTA. Instead, when the T showed signs of fiscal trouble in 2003, Romney signed a law to allow fare hikes. "It was just a slap in the face," Democratic State Representative Gloria L. Fox told the Boston Globe. "It just goes to show that the poor pay more." But Romney stopped short of advocating increases in ticket prices. He ordered an audit of the T’s finances, and suggested strongly that they look for ways to increase ridership and improve service before asking riders to pay more.

Governor Romney took a similarly business-like approach to the state’s highways. In 2004, he signed a reform bill to streamline and consolidate the operations of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the state Highway Department. The move was philosophically similar to recent proposals, by both parties in Washington, to simplify project selection and funding mechanisms in federal transportation.

All in all, Romney remained a metro-friendly moderate during his tenure as Governor. In 2005, mid-term, he unveiled a twenty-year, $31-billion state transportation plan that re-emphasized his “fix-it-first” convictions, directing “seventy-five percent of all new capital spending toward maintaining and improving the Commonwealth’s existing transportation network.” Hailing the “post-Big-Dig world,” Romney’s plan was modally balanced. Twelve billion went to “reconstructing, decongesting and expanding roadways across the Commonwealth, including all major choke points,” while nine billion went to “achieving a state of good repair on the MBTA’s aging assets.”

Will Romney’s smart-growth past be thrown back at him as “right-wing social engineering”? Will his ruminations about a private Amtrak take firmer root? Will he continue his anti-Federal tack and declare transportation the prerogative of the states? It’s hard to know. Perhaps it won’t come up much in the primaries—it hasn’t so far.

But some are betting that Mitt’s a transportation man, deep down. According to an analysis of campaign contributions from the transportation sector this cycle, Romney comes in second among politicians nationwide (including the President), with $485,626 as of press time. The leader, Texas Governor Rick Perry, tops Romney by less than $5,000, and the two are way out in front. House Speaker John Boehner, in third place, has raised less than half the haul of either man.

More candidate analysis: Newt Gingrich: Rail Visionary, Lover of OilRick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor Problem.

(Special hat tip to blogger Mike Laub whose obsessive catalog of old Romney press releases provided a wealth of information.)

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.