Streams

Newt Gingrich: Rail Visionary, Lover of Oil

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 - 06:56 PM

Former speaker Newt Gingrich. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Flickr.

It’s hard to know for sure how former House Speaker New Gingrich might handle transportation as President. Of his Republican rivals who’ve been governor you can easily paint portraits of the metro-friendly moderate or the big-thinking privatizer. But Gingrich has never overseen a department of transportation, never appointed a transportation commissioner, never signed off on (or killed) a major project.

His Congressional record isn't terribly helpful. In the House, Gingrich didn’t seem focused on mobility issues. An analysis of his track record on Project Votesmart reveals that Gingrich did not cast a vote on many of the key transportation bills in the 1990s, including the 1998 TEA-21 reauthorization bill, which succeeded by a large margin. Newt’s famous Contract with America didn’t deal with bridges or trains or roads (the “Taking Back our Streets Act” dealt with crime) and the summary of legislative proposals that make up his newer-fangled "21st Century Contract with America" never mentions “transportation” or “infrastructure” (aside from military infrastructure).

So all we have is his rhetoric. And in that, Gingrich has had his bold moments, though. In 2007, in the months following the publication of his book A Contract with the Earth, when he was filming public service announcements with Nancy Pelosi, Gingrich was talking up “common sense environmentalism” and a green jobs revolution, dreaming of a “Hydrogen car, or a car that would get 1,000 miles to a gallon of petroleum.” He suggested offering cash prizes of a tax-free billion dollars to attract “lots of inventors other than auto companies in Detroit.” He beamed thinking about a composite materials car made in America, or a hydrogen engine made in America.

“If you look at the amount we spent to maintain military capability in the Persian Gulf,” he said, “if you had spent the same amount to create a revolution in energy, we’d almost certainly be deeply into a hydrogen economy by now.”

Gingrich has consistently been in favor of private companies doing technologically cool things for the health of America (and for profit). In his book, Real Change, he included a chapter endorsing improved rail and more modernized airports. “As the leading economy in the world,” he wrote, “America should have the best air and rail transportation in the world, but we don’t.”

Why not? Because of unions, Gingrich believes. “Unfortunately, the air traffic controller union understands that a twenty-first-century space-based air traffic control system would reduce the importance and number of air traffic controllers.” And the three reasons America hasn’t seen the kind of high-speed rail investment one saw in France, Japan, and China? “Union work rules make it impossible,” for one, Gingrich writes. For another, "regulations and litigation involved in large-scale construction...has become time consuming and expensive.” And third: “pork barrel politicians waste money subsidizing absurdly uneconomic routes.”

Gingrich identified the three corridors he believed were “very conducive to this kind of high-speed train investment,” and they may sound familiar: a system between Boston and Washington, from San Diego to San Francisco, and from Miami to Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.

“I support—and I’m confident that most Americans support—a twenty-first-century rail system that is privately built, run efficiently, and capable of earning its own way,” Gingrich wrote, allowing that this “might even require an initial program of tax incentives or other help (just as the transcontinental railroad did). But it just makes sense that we the people of the United States should have a railroad system that works for us, and not for the Amtrak bureaucracy and their unions.” For non-high-speed corridors, he suggested turning the rail lines over to the states.

In 2009, Gingrich held forth with his former colleague Dick Gephardt at an event sponsored by Building America's Future and the National Governors Association (video via Streetsblog). He spoke in favor of user fees over taxes, and privatization over government bureaucracies, but agreed with BAF co-founder (and former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania) Ed Rendell that America needed a capital budget. "No American thinks they buy houses on annual appropriations," he said. He asserted that the American public understood capital investment, that we were being held back by an unimaginative government, and that we needed a program of "very large megaprojects that arouse the nation" -- specifically faster rail lines.

But as Matt Yglesias noted in May of this year, within 24 hours of announcing his candidacy, Gingrich went on the radio to defend oil companies, railing against the “anti-energy, anti-American” ideas of the far left, who “don’t understand how the real world works.”

“Liberals don’t like us liking bigger vehicles, so they want to find a way to punish us economically,” Gingrich said, accusing Obama of schadenfreude over higher gas prices. “Hit our pocketbook, make us change, because they’d like all of us to live in big cities in high rises, taking mass transit.”

One might perceive in Newt’s pro-oil posture a bit of political practicality. When selling books and not soliciting votes, he’s shown a greater imagination for an America that lives and works differently. Sometimes his imagination has run rather wild, as when he became enamored with the idea of giant space mirrors that could distribute sunlight to prevent darkness, lower crime, prevent frosts in agricultural areas -- and light the interstate highways.

Those in the transportation business seem to be likewise unsure of where Gingrich’s heart lies. Open Secrets shows that Newt has raised a paltry $19,450 from identifiable transportation-sector contributors this year. That’s just 4% of the $485,000 Romney has raised from the industry, a quarter of the haul won by Ron Paul, and $2,000 less than Rick Santorum received.

More candidate analysis: Mitt Romney: Metro-Friendly Moderate?, Rick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor Problem.

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 [2]

Jim Loomis

OH! Now I get it ... The reason high-speed rail has succeeded in France is because the transportation workers have no union! Thanks for clearing that up for me, Newt. (Psst! Get the rubber room ready and someone please call the men in the white coats!)

Dec. 21 2011 02:58 PM
cb

Eighty-four ethics charges were filed against Speaker Gingrich during his term, including claiming tax-exempt status for a college course run for political purposes. Following an investigation by the House Ethics Committee Gingrich was sanctioned. Gingrich acknowledged in January 1997 that "In my name and over my signature, inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements were given to the committee". The House Ethics Committee concluded that inaccurate information supplied to investigators represented "intentional or ... reckless" disregard of House rules. The special Counsel concluded that Gingrich violated federal tax law and had lied to the ethics panel in an effort to force the committee to dismiss the complaint against him. He has always been about the money. All the charges did not prove true, but he is always up to something to make money!

Dec. 20 2011 09:52 PM

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