Out of Control Policy Blog

Romney's Transportation and Land Use Policies may be Little Different than Obama's

Many people know that “Obamacare” was modeled on former governor Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health-care law. However, few know that one of President Obama’s landmark “smart growth” initiatives known as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities was also based on a Romney program. 

When Romney was governor of Massachusetts he fought sprawl and encouraged density. According to The Grist, in 2002 he said, “Sprawl is the most important quality of life issue facing Massachusetts.” After winning Romney changed the state’s land-use laws in several ways. First, he created the Office for Commonwealth Development and appointed environmentalist Douglas Foy to lead it. According to Commonwealth Magazine, the business community was furious. The state office ensured that transportation, housing, energy, and environmental offices all worked together to promote smart growth. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities has accomplished the same goals on the federal level with the department of transportation, department of housing and urban development and the environmental protection agency.

Romney’s administration worked to concentrate development in town centers, construct housing near transit stations, and improve existing roads instead of expanding them. 

Further according to The Grist:

Romney was a vocal advocate for the cause. “I very much believe in the concept known as smart growth or sustainable development, which is the phrase I used in the campaign,” Romney told Commonwealth Magazine in 2003. “You do not want to deplete your green space and air and water [in order] to grow, and the only way that’s possible is if your growth is done in a thoughtful, coherent, strategic way.

As Romney put it in 2005, “By targeting development to areas where there is already infrastructure in place, not only can we revitalize our older communities, but we can also curb sprawl as well.” His administration actively pursued a “sustainable development agency” and promoted “transit-oriented development,” “multi-modal transportation,” “village-style zoning" “green building,” “mixed use” development, “mixed-income housing,” and other approaches that would delight any green-leaning city planner — and rile up any red-blooded Tea Partier.

Environmental activists still found plenty to criticize in Romney’s approach to land use and development, but many greens and smart-growth advocates were pleasantly surprised, at least in the first half of Romney’s term. In 2006, the U.S. EPA gave Massachusetts’ Office for Commonwealth Development its National Award for Smart Growth Achievement.

There are several parallels between Romney’s state program and the current federal program:

Just as Romney’s Office for Commonwealth Development incentivized local communities to embrace smart growth by offering grants, so does the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Since its launch, the partnership has helped to allocate about $3.5 billion in grants and other assistance to more than 700 communities that want to better coordinate housing, transportation, and economic-development projects and make neighborhoods more walkable, transit-accessible, and sustainable.

In fact Romney’s policies were smart growth oriented until his last year as Governor when he decided to quit the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI):

 [I]n mid-December (2005) Romney abruptly pulled the state out (of the RGGI)— despite the fact that several staffers in his administration had spent two and a half years and more than half a million dollars negotiating and shaping the deal.

Romney had until (December of 2005) been an advocate and architect of RGGI, which includes a market-based trading system that will let big fossil-fuel power plants buy and sell the right to emit carbon dioxide. As recently as November (2005), he was publicly talking up the agreement: “I’m convinced it is good business,” he told a clean-energy conference in Boston. “We can effectively create incentives to help stimulate a sector of the economy and at the same time not kill jobs.”

So why did then Governor Romney pull out? It was about this time he considered running for the Republican 2008 nomination for President. 

So where does Romney stand now? He recently told several donors that he might eliminate HUD, the department his father headed during the Nixon administration. He has said the EPA under President Obama is “out of control.” Would he approach smart growth in a similar manner to health-care and argue that promoting smart growth at the state level makes sense while promoting it at the federal level is unconstitutional? Since the President’s smart growth policies mostly apply at the local level, applying the health care reasoning to the smart growth arena is not the same. 

Still people who worked with Romney are not sure of his real views. I will try to hazard a guess. Romney is a moderate Republican; in a few states he might qualify as a Democrat. He believes in smart growth, providing universal healthcare, reforming immigration, and is pro-choice. However, to become President his views have “evolved” to become more in line with the base of the Republican party. While he is not the first politician to switch his views to become more electable, he is pressing the limits of believability. 

The question is what happens after he is elected. Will his true opinions on smart growth shine through or will he take a politically popular path. And what happens if he is elected to a second term?

Much of the current opposition to smart growth has arisen as a result of a United Nations document titled Agenda 21. The non-binding agenda that came out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit contains many policies that could be harmful to the United States. However similar to most other bad United Nations policies it has been ignored by most of the world and will likely continue to be ignored. Some in the tea party are making a mountain out of this molehill of a document. Neither Obama’s nor Romney’s policies are based on Agenda 21. In reality, they are based on smart growth dogma that is emotionally charged and largely factually unsubstantiated. Programs such as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, applied indiscriminately with no regard for the differences between different places, are potentially more damaging to the United States in the long-term than any United Nations document. 

From a land use and transportation viewpoint, Romney’s policies may be little different than Obama’s policies. In some ways Obama is more believable because he actually believes in what he preaches. Romney preaches just to be elected. In transportation matters, President Obama has been one of the least effective Presidents in the last fifty years. The fact that Governor Romney may be little different is a depressing thought indeed.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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