Presidential Candidates Have Transportation Backers Driving Blind

WASHINGTON — Transportation and infrastructure policy has taken a back seat throughout the presidential campaign so far, a fact that industry insiders think is an intentional dodge of the daunting challenge of funding new investment.

Mitt Romney has not publicly announced a detailed infrastructure policy, and his published campaign materials limit his infrastructure vision to a plan for energy independence. Barack Obama has made infrastructure investment a major part of his job creation efforts during his first term, but has been unable to translate those ideas into law.

A key component of Obama’s 2011 American Jobs Act was the creation of a national infrastructure bank, a federal pool of money that could finance state and local projects by backing bonds. Though state transportation officials and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have expressed support for the concept, it has not gained traction in Congress and transportation lobbyists see little chance it will emerge in the near future whether Obama wins a second term or not.

The president’s proposed transportation funding levels for “an America built to last” vastly exceeded the money that legislators were able to provide in the most recent transportation law. The administration pushed for a six-year, $476 billion reauthorization of highway and transit programs, which was included in the 2013 budget, far more than the two-year, $105 billion bill that meandered a tortured path through Congress earlier this year.

Despite Romney’s relative silence on the matter, the Republican platform approved at the party’s convention in Tampa expressed support for more widespread use of public-private partnerships and Romney has come out in favor of stripping federal subsidies from Amtrak and allowing private development and operation of rail networks in the Northeast.

“He clearly knows the importance of transportation,” said one lobbyist who spoke about the campaign on condition of anonymity, “but I don’t think that we’ve seen any specific proposals.”

Romney’s time as governor of Massachusetts and his smooth handling of transportation organization in Salt Lake City prior to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games underscore Romney’s understanding of the issues, the lobbyist said.

While Congress has “completely ignored” Obama’s infrastructure agenda, the lobbyist continued, “We at least know where the administration has been.”

“There’s not much being said,” opined Jack Basso, director of finance and program management for the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials.

If either the president or his challenger release detailed infrastructure investment plans, Basso went on, that candidate would “immediately be faced with the question of ‘how’re you gonna pay for this thing?’”

“It begs a question you don’t have the answer for,” said Basso. 

Another question is the future of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The former Republican House member announced last year that he would not serve beyond Obama’s first term, but has recently backed away from that statement and said he would discuss his future with the president. LaHood has made inter-city high-speed rail development a priority, much to the chagrin of some leading Republicans in Congress, and a new secretary could have a totally different set of goals.

Airports have not felt the love from either candidate, though Airports Council International-North America’s vice president of government and political affairs Jane Calderwood said the group had reached out to both campaigns. Airports  are pushing for the freedom to set their own passenger facilities charges, revenues they use to back bonds, but have failed to secure that measure under Obama despite his support, and have not heard from Romney.

“We did send letters to both campaigns explaining the importance of airports to the economy and the need for changes in the way federal policy deals with airport funding,” Calderwood said.

The group has not heard back, she said, and so the future of policy in either man’s hands is hard to gauge.

“The answer is, we don’t know.”



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