The Party of Roads?

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(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation) You won’t find a clearer policy statement than the domain name for The web site was created on behalf of Scott Walker, the republican gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin, who in a new campaign spot takes a stand against a proposed Madison-to-Milwaukee rail line. Rather than build the $810 million dollar federally-funded “boondoggle,” Walker says, he’d like to “fix Wisconsin’s crumbling roads and bridges.” He’s worried for the “hard-working families who are going to pick up the tab” for a train they may never ride.

The undercurrents are of states rights and fiscal responsibility. The television ad and the open letter that appear on the web site are directed not so much against Walker’s Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (who supports the rail plan), but against President Barack Obama, who won the state of Wisconsin two years ago by nearly fourteen percent.

Walker isn’t the only Republican gubernatorial hopeful employing the roads-vs-rail rivalry in a state that voted for Obama. California nominee Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO, has complained that issuing bond debt for high speed rail is unwise in the current economy. She wants the plans put on ice. In Ohio, candidate John Kasich has proposed repurposing the $400 million in stimulus money set aside for faster trains serving Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati, and using that money for roads. And in Maryland, Republican challenger Bob Erlich has taken issue with Governor Martin O’Malley’s goal to “dial up mass transit.” Erlich says he wants to see a better balance of highway and transit projects, and has suggested that a number of commuter rail projects be converted to a bus program.

The party is not monolithic against rail.

Republican Nathan Deal, who won the primary this week in Georgia, favors building new roads to improve east-west travel and divert trucks out of the Atlanta area, but he also told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “we need to take a serious look at high-speed rail linking Atlanta to Chattanooga and to Macon” and that “the growth of high-density projects in recent years will increase the feasibility of existing and future rail projects, and we’ll emphasize bus transport in suburban areas, particularly for commuters.”

Transportation has become a gubernatorial issue even in states where modal antagonism is not in play. In Texas, a political action committee launched an ad last week attacking Republican Governor Rick Perry over his plans for the Trans-Texas Corridor, a hugely unpopular network of private toll roads that Perry and TxDOT have recently bent over backwards to proclaim dead. The commercial features an elderly rancher couple who invoke Perry’s defeated plan to “bulldoze half a million acres of private land — and give it to a Spanish company to build toll roads.”

Perry’s Democratic challenger, Bill White, is a former mayor of Houston, and no opponent of toll roads. In an interview with the AP this week, he came out in favor of boosting highway capacity, but emphasized his desire to enhancing local control over projects and funding schemes. He refused to rule out higher state gas taxes and debt.

In Idaho, Democratic challenger Keith Allred earlier this month put his own intriguing twist on the gas tax question. He suggested rebalancing the burden between cars and semis to more accurately reflect the impact they have on maintenance costs. He would lower the state gas tax for by 3 cents a gallon while asking truckers, whose vehicles cause much more wear and tear, to pay more for their diesel. Kathy Fowers, the president of the Idaho Trucking Association, said flatly that the proposal would make no difference to consumers, who would end up paying for increased shipping costs in the end, and Republican Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter held off on offering his counterproposal. He has appointed a gubernatorial task force on modernizing transportation funding, and wants to wait until they finish their report—after the election.

Will rail-hating be a winner in November? Give us your thoughts in the comments section to the left.