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Transportation Nation

Rick Santorum, as Senator, Preached the Gospel of Transit

Monday, January 09, 2012

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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Transportation Nation

Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor Problem

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Governor Rick Perry speaking at CPAC FL in Orlando, Florida. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

For Texas Governor Rick Perry, Republican Primary debates have been a little rocky. So far he's been made to answer for mandating an HPV vaccine, and for granting undocumented immigrants in-state tuition breaks. Equally vexing for Perry may be the Corridor question, which will require the same difficult maneuvering between the choices he made as governor of a large, diverse state, and the the choices that appeal to Republican primary voters whose appetite for big government, or any kind of government, is at one of its lowest points in modern history.

Eventually, Perry will be asked to defend his Trans-Texas Corridor program, an infrastructure initiative that was expensive, disruptive to private property, and proposed at least partly in the name of facilitating NAFTA trade (though not, as some protesters would have it, part of a plot to dissolve America's borders).

Perry may succeed in demonizing the federal government in cheering for states' rights, but he may have to defend criticism that he ran his state (which likes to think of itself as a nation) in a manner that threatened local decision-making just the same.

Perry first floated his Texas-sized transportation plan in 2002, during his first campaign for Governor (he had already ascended to the position in 2000 with the departure of Governor George W. Bush to the White House). The Corridor was “the largest engineering project ever proposed for Texas, a world-class concept,” a now-infamous report (pdf) explained. “The Trans Texas Corridor is an all-Texas transportation network of corridors up to 1,200 feet wide." The criss-crossing network, totaling 4,000 miles, "will include separate highway lanes for passenger vehicles and trucks, high-speed passenger rail and commuter and freight rail. The corridor also will have a dedicated utility zone.”

The TTC, as it came to be known, was Perry’s and his Department of Transportation’s answer to the challenges of a growing state economy. Following its cover page, the report offered an epigraph quoting Sam Houston, who, as a U.S. Senator in 1852, said that Transportation was “of vital importance, and we must all lay our hands to it as a great and mighty work of national interest and concernment, divested of everything sectional or local in its character. If its accomplishment is to be secured, it must be done with united hands and united hearts, with reference alone to the public good and its accomplishment on the most reasonable terms that the national resources will justify.”

It was the “divested of everything sectional or local” part of this mission statement that caused Perry the most trouble. The Trans-Texas Corridor would cost an estimated $183.5 Billion, TxDOT’s report said, but the proposal included changes to state law that would encourage the private sector to undertake these costs and, in return, to make a profit from tolling the corridors and building any number of service facilities along them.

The necessary enabling legislation sailed through in 2003, while the state capitol was distracted by a battle over redistricting. Evidently, few legislators knew what the bill contained. By the time TxDOT began holding public meetings about the Corridor, in early 2004, the sudden possibility that private companies, some of them foreign, might exercise eminent domain to build huge swaths of infrastructure for profit took voters by surprise. Local county toll authorities in Dallas and Houston began complaining that the state was bullying them into contracts with private companies, and voters began pressuring their legislators to repeal the law that made those contracts possible.

Perry had installed his friend and fellow former legislator Ric Williamson as Chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, and Williamson (now deceased) took the kind of straight-talk, tough-love approach to transportation policy that Perry now seems to be taking on Social Security. The gas-tax system wasn't sustainable, and people needed to know it. Williamson didn’t refer to public highway funding as a “ponzi scheme,” but he did tour the state telling local officials that they had to choose between “toll roads, slow roads, or no roads.” “There is no road fairy,” both men were fond of saying.

Protesters march in Austin at the "Don&squot;t Tag Texas" rally in March, 2007. Photo by Matt Dellinger

Protesters in Austin at the "Don't Tag Texas" rally in March, 2007. Photo by Matt Dellinger

The public didn’t much enjoy the Perry Administration’s approach. David and Linda Stall, two citizens from Fayetteville, formed an online group called CorridorWatch and held a series of meetings across the state to educate the public on the details of the plan. They succeeded in whipping up outrage that at times exceeded their own: Their public appearances became rallying points for a new coalition of rural landowners, anti-“North American Union” conspiracy theorists, Ron Paul supporters, and members of the John Birch Society. The next session of the semi-annual state legislature, in 2005, was dominated by efforts to repeal the Corridor plan (which was laid to its final rest this year). State legislators, who were complicit in passing enabling legislation if not in setting the my-way-or-the-highway tone of Perry’s policy, neutered the Governor’s transportation agenda and humbled TxDOT. In the next gubernatorial election, in 2006, Perry’s unpopularity inspired independent challenges by Kinky Friedman and Carol Keeton Strayhorn (who as state comptroller had fought the Corridor), but in the end Perry won a plurality of just 39%.

Though Perry has come to embrace—and be embraced by—the conservative Tea Party movement, the motley crew that assembled to take down the Trans-Texas Corridor might be seen as its beginnings. (In fact, there were local anti-corridor groups that called themselves the Austin Toll Party and the San Antonio Toll Party.) For those who object to top-down transportation planning in America, Perry’s performance in Texas raises the question of whether starving the federal program might only multiply the problem by fifty.

Candidate Perry has yet to articulate his current vision for transportation in America, but it would seem he's equipped to do so: His campaign's policy and strategy director is Deidre Delisi, Perry's former chief of staff whom he appointed as chair of the Texas Transportation Commission in 2008, after Williamson's death. As chair (a five-year appointment) Delisi has presided over the dismantling of the Trans-Texas Corridor effort and the creation of a kinder, gentler TxDOT more committed to honoring local input.

Back in February 2005, the Governor seemed receptive to raising his state’s gasoline tax by pegging it to inflation. Evoking Sam Houston’s rousing call to pursue “a great and mighty work of national interest” would seem to suggest Perry shares with President Obama an appetite for big, bold infrastructure building. He clearly believes, or once did,  that the transportation system could use a heavy dose of additional investment—across multiple modes.

On the other hand, in 2009, he spoke out vehemently against federal stimulus, and even mused aloud that the “federal budget mess” might inspire Texans to secede from the union. According to Perry, when Texas joined the United States in 1845, he said, “one of the deals was we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kinda thinking about that again.”

Perry had his state history a little wrong. The annexation treaty did not allow for secession. It allowed Texas, if it later chose, to split into four different states—something which the local city-states of Dallas and Houston, who felt manhandled by Perry, might have longed for back in 2004.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway, which describes the Trans-Texas Corridor battle in great detail. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Transportation Nation

What's Saving the Lives of Texas Drivers?

Monday, August 30, 2010

(Houston, TX - Wendy Siegle, KUHF)  The nightly news here focuses on mangled cars, strewn across Texas freeways.  The reports tallying the number of daily highway fatalities feel incessant.  So you might think deadly traffic accidents across Texas are on the rise.

But hard data don’t lie, and it appears fewer people are actually dying in car accidents after all. The number has been steadily decreasing over the years, and in 2009, there was an 11 percent decline in crash fatalities from the year before. Eleven percent is significant, considering the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) puts the year-on-year decrease in Texas from 2007 to 2008 at a mere two percent.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), 3,089 people died on Texas highways last year; that’s 388 less than in 2008.  TxDOT’s Kelli Petras says the drop in fatalities took the agency by surprise. “We are very fortunate to have received this low number. We’ve been trying really hard to get our fatality numbers down,” she said.

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Transportation Nation

The Party of Roads?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation) You won’t find a clearer policy statement than the domain name for NoTrain.com. 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.

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