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Rick Santorum, as Senator, Preached the Gospel of Transit

Monday, January 09, 2012 - 04:44 PM

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

In March of 2005, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and its Pennsylvania counterpart (PPTA) honored Senator Rick Santorum for his dedication to public transportation. APTA president William W. Millar noted Santorum’s “tireless advocacy” and contributions on “both the national and local level.”

This recognition came shortly after Santorum appeared on Meet the Press with Joe Biden and vowed to oppose President Bush in his efforts to cut Amtrak funding. “Without substantial government funds or other intervening action, Amtrak would quickly enter bankruptcy and shut down all of its services, leaving millions of riders and thousands of communities without access to the essential and convenient transportation that Amtrak provides,” Santorum wrote in a Philadelphia Enquirer piece later that March. Regions outside the Northeast, he admitted, needed to “take steps to become more efficient and profitable.” But in the meantime “it is critical to Pennsylvania's workers, businesses, visitors, and most specifically to the more than 3,000 Amtrak employees that we do not decrease funding for Amtrak.”

The APTA release noted that Santorum’s position on the Senate Banking Committee and the Senate Finance Committee had allowed him to play “an important role in securing funding for various transportation projects throughout Pennsylvania.” And indeed it had.

Santorum’s primary challengers are now characterizing the Senator’s fondness for federal largess as a sign that he’s not a real fiscal conservative. In late December, as Santorum was surging in the Iowa polls, Rick Perry began criticizing him as “a prolific earmarker.” One Perry ad called Santorum “a porker’s best friend.” “I love Iowa pork,” Perry said in a speech. “But I hate Washington pork. Senator Santorum loaded up his bills with Pennsylvania pork and even voted for the Alaska bridge to nowhere.”

All true. But a little context, if you’d like: In 2005, earmarking was de rigueur. Congressmen and Senators brought pork back from the Washington hunt and hung it triumphantly at press conferences and shovel ceremonies. In July of 2005, when the final Senate vote was taken on the transportation funding bill that contained the “Bridge to Nowhere” earmark, only four Senators opposed it. And the Republican president signed it.

Does that mean that the earmark-baiting of the other candidates is nothing more than “pious baloney?” Well, Perry and his Texas Department of Transportation certainly had their hand out back then too. (The Governor often cited the disappointing funding stream from Washington as one reason he wanted to see his privatized Trans-Texas Corridor plan enacted.)

But who has credibility in this regard? If 96 Senators jumped off a cliff, who wouldn’t? John McCain, who was one of those four Senators who voten nay on the 2005 transportation reauthorization, who took a brave lead in criticizing the earmark-laden bill, and who is now on the stump for Romney, criticizing Santorum (and Gingrich) for earmarking.

And to the horror of The Club for Growth, Santorum says he has no regrets on earmarking. "I don't regret going out at the time and making sure that the people of Pennsylvania, who I was elected to represent, got resources back into the state after spending money,” he said recently. The Huffington Post also quoted Santorum explaining to a crowd of voters in Iowa: “In the Constitution it says who has the power to appropriate funds. Congress does. So we appropriate funds.”

Former Pennsylvania Governor and Infrastructure cheerleader Ed Rendell chimed in last week to praise Santorum’s effectiveness in funneling money home. "He understood that those type of earmarks translated into jobs and investment," Rendell said.

Indeed his support of infrastructure, particularly transit, seems to run deep. From 1984 to 1986, Santorum served as the director for the state senate transportation committee as an administrative assistant for Pennsylvania state senator J. Doyle Corman. He understood what rail meant to Pennsylvania and its cities. "The 'T' light rail line in Pittsburgh was my daily means of transportation for many years while I worked downtown,” Santorum said in 2005 when he was honored by the APTA. “I understand the importance of maintaining the various forms of public transportation for those who rely on it every day."

Midway through his first term as senator, during the drafting of the TEA-21 authorization bill, Santorum helped create the new Job Access and Reverse Commute program, which was meant to address “the unique transportation challenges faced by welfare recipients and low-income persons seeking to obtain and maintain employment.” When the authorization bill came up for renewal in 2005, Santorum appeared before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs and offered a full-throated endorsement of the program—and federal transit funding in general—from a socially conservative angle.

“Robust [transit] systems are also an important component of economic development,” he said. “Throughout my tenure in Congress, one of my highest priorities has been assisting those who are transitioning from welfare to the workplace.... In my home state of Pennsylvania, the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in particular have provided access to employment for thousands of individuals through the JARC program. The creation of the program has allowed Pennsylvania to provide welfare recipients and other low-income individuals an opportunity to secure and retain employment and achieve self-sufficiency.”

Interestingly, that May of 2005, at a time when privatization was spreading and the Bush Administration was promoting state-level responsibility for transportation, Santorum offered a strenuous defense for a strong federal participation in transportation funding.

“Every State in the country has a transportation department. Why do we need a Federal transportation department?” He asked. “We need it because we have to make sure the goods that are produced in New Jersey can get to Ohio to Texas, or the goods produced in California can get to Georgia.

"The fact is it is important for us to be connected... We have a situation where we have States that shoulder a large burden when it comes to that interstate commerce, and we have other States that are the great beneficiaries.” The Federal government, he argued, should continueto redistribute national gas tax revenues disproportionately to “pass-through” states such as Pennsylvania. “Given the topography, the climate, and the congestion and traffic we bear, it would be a State that should do well under a Federal formula.”

So there you have it. Rick Santorum is a man quite comfortable with Washington’s role in redistributing tax revenue, at least when it comes to transportation. He’s a man who quite likes trains and buses, a man who sees federal spending on public transportation not as welfare, but rather as a way to help people of lesser means get to work, as economic development.

More candidate analysis:  Mitt Romney: Metro-Friendly Moderate?; Newt Gingrich: Rail Visionary, Lover of Oil; 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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