President Barack Obama made improving transportation infrastructure a centerpiece of both his 2009 stimulus bill and 2011's American Jobs Act, which died in Congress late in the year. Upgrading the country's poorly maintained roads and bridges, the president argued, would have the dual benefit of improving business opportunities while putting people to work.
Speaking in front of the functionally obsolete Brent Spence Bridge in Cincinnati in September, the president said, "We used to have the best infrastructure in the world."
"How can we sit back and watch all these countries in Europe and Asia build newer airports and faster railroads and stronger bridges?" Obama asked in an address that sounded like a campaign speech to observers. "At a time when millions of unemployed construction workers could build them right here in America?"
Among the Republican candidates running for president, however, references to transportation infrastructure have been few and far between. Infrastructure's job-creating potential, so critical for Obama, seems not to register among the GOP candidates, who abhor deficit spending and argue they'll be able to grow the economy as a whole by cutting taxes.
"I listened to some of the debates, but I don't recall the word transportation at all," said Ken Orski, a transportation consultant and former Nixon administration official.
Obama "seems to view transportation as a social good and therefore to be supported irrespective of its economic basis, of its self-financing basis," Orski argued.
Republicans, by contrast, view transportation as either a local issue or "a sector that ought to stand on its own feet, in other words pay for itself, in other words through tolls or other fees," Orski said.
If there is one thing that GOP candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich seem to agree on, it's those "user fees." If a road's worth building, the argument goes, people will be willing to pay for it themselves through tolls.
That argument mirrors one advanced by the Department of Transportation during the Bush administration, which, according to the Washington Post, operated under the guiding principle that "unleashing the private sector and introducing market forces could lead to innovation and more choices for the public." The result was "a legacy of new toll roads across the country."
In a 2008 speech outlining his infrastructure "principles," unearthed by Streetsblog, former House Speaker Gingrich (R-Ga.) said the country should "when possible shift to user fees rather than tax increases. The fact is all the polling indicates if you want to help with suburban congestion, suburbanites are very prepared to have a user fee to get them places faster, they understand the time value of money."
A President Romney, it seems, would also look at roads as a business proposition.
Speaking to a voter at a New Hampshire town hall, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney said that he would "prioritize those things which are most important to you and infrastructure and having good roads and bridges and rail lines and so forth and air traffic lines are essential for a strong economy," according to the blog Transportation Nation. "I'm willing to invest in those things and even borrow in circumstances where there’s going to be a revenue stream that pays it back."
Romney's admission that he would be willing to borrow for infrastructure was a rare one in the GOP field. But the "revenue stream" to pay back the cost of borrowing would come with a catch: "Here in New Hampshire you have tolls and I know that's not real popular -- but more popular than a sales tax, than an income tax, and so you have a dedicated stream of revenue, and so the state is able to build a highway or to repair bridges and the revenue stream you have pays it back."
Romney's plan sounds a lot like it could lead to using the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act to build more toll roads -- just as it was used under the Bush administration. Under President Obama, the Department of Transportation has continued to use TIFIA for toll roads while also expanding its use as a financing mechanism for mass transit.
The Romney-Obama split mirrors a deeper ideological divide between the two major political parties on transportation. Democrats and Republicans have wide differences of opinion about how to pay for transportation, according to the crosstabs of a Dec. 3-13 Reason-Rupe poll provided to HuffPost.
Members of both parties strongly oppose raising the gas tax, which is increasingly unable to fill the coffers of the National Highway Trust Fund as people drive fewer miles and cars become more efficient.
Far sharper is the partisan divide over public transportation. When forced to pick between increasing funding for public transportation or interstates, the Reason poll found, 40 percent of Democrats would go with the former. Only 18 percent of GOP-backers favored public transportation over roads.
On high-speed rail, which has become a favorite Republican example of a stimulus boondoggle, GOP voters are very much opposed to government support for the emerging transportation option. Only 21 percent of Republicans support government backing for bullet trains, as opposed to 47 percent of Democrats.
So Romney was probably on firm ground on Monday when he told a crowd in Iowa, according to Transportation Nation, that "Amtrak ought to stand on its own feet or its own wheels or whatever you'd say."
President Obama, by contrast, has proudly touted his support for Amtrak -- and high-speed rail.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated the Reason poll results as "47 percent of Republicans" support government backing for bullet trains, when the percentage represents Democrats.
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