Shippers and transportation providers looking to understand how presumed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would handle the nation’s ailing freight infrastructure system are finally getting some hints.
Though the details are few, the transportation industry is at least beginning to see how Romney’s stance compares to that of President Obama. The president’s policy is much clearer: He pushed transportation spending for the last four years, albeit with mixed results.
The topic of transportation could take an even more prevalent role in the campaign over the next month, with some expecting Romney to hit the issue hard in his nomination acceptance speech on Thursday. Political heavy hitters and major shippers want to hear more from both candidates, though. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said they want to make infrastructure investment one of the six tops at the Oct. 3 debate. The National Industrial Transportation League on Aug. 23 requested the candidates’ positions on freight policy, and the impact of rising costs of energy, greenhouse gas emissions and security on supply chains.
So where does Romney stand on freight infrastructure? As governor of Massachusetts, he sought hundreds of millions of dollars for state transportation projects, according to the Washington Post. Such a position now would put him in direct conflict with the House Republican-led ban on earmarks, a shift that made passing the recent surface transportation bill even trickier. Republicans have shown little appetite to change their stance on infrastructure earmarks, reconfirming their position in the recently passed Republican Convention platform.
Most noticeably, Romney’s pick of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., triggered fears that his budget-cutting deputy would scale back infrastructure spending. Although Ryan’s proposed budget called for a quarter less spending on transportation programs, it’s unclear whether Romney would take the same path. The same goes for a provision in Ryan’s budget that would strip the cargo preference for U.S.-flag carriers.
Perhaps, the best indicator of how Romney will approach infrastructure investment is his party’s platform. The platform paper, titled “Restoring the American Dream,” is clear in its view that U.S. infrastructure networks are key to economic growth and international competitiveness. Although Romney rejected the platform later, elements in the paper show which direction Republicans are pushing him toward. The platform's position on infrastructure also parallels Ryan's budget proposal.
“The nation’s ports have become a bottleneck in international trade. America’s exporters sometimes use Canadian ports in order to reach the world market in a timely manner,” the report states “With the widening of the Panama Canal, our East Coast and Gulf ports have an extraordinary to boost container traffic but require major improvements.”
True, but the position paper glides over how to pay for infrastructure improvements, considering fuel taxes aren’t enough to pay for needed maintenance and expansion. “Republicans will make hard choices and set priorities, and infrastructure will be among them,” is the closest the position paper comes to addressing the widening funding shortfall. The Republicans appear to be on firmer ground when it comes to what they don’t want in transportation policy. That includes using a vehicle-per-mile mechanism to tax drivers, and spending money on sidewalks and other nontraditional transportation projects.
Republicans, including Romney, have hit hard on the lack of shovel-ready projects in Obama's $787 billion stimulus package and that only a quarter of the spending went to infrastructure projects. Romney spokesman Brendan Buck told Politico earlier this month that the administration's "overregulation and special interest stand in the way of new infrastructure development."
The comments, one of the few infrastructure specific statements from the Romney camp, came after a Virginia radio ad accused Ryan's budget plan of threatening to increase congestion by cutting transportation spending. Ryan also came under fire from the ad for opposing the stimulus package and bridge repair legislation, which was proposed after the Interstate-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007.
Despite the negative tone, such ads at least bring the issue to voters who aren't consciously involved in the movement of goods and materials. But a clear strategy is needed from both sides, not just swipes at each other. The Republican's convention platform pats itself on the back for pushing a project streamlining provision in the surface transportation bill, but such efforts aren't enough to solve the funding shortfall. Obama's grant program for infrastructure projects, known as TIGER grants, can't either. One of the major themes of the Republican convention has been telling voters about the hard choices that need to be made when it comes to cutting the U.S. deficit. Some similar straight talk would be welcome from both sides on the nation's ailing port and highway systems.
A more in-depth story on Romney and Obama's freight infrastructure policies, and the role of the issue in the presidential campaign will be available in next week's print and online edition.