In their words

Dan McNichol / September 09, 2008

One is too old—the other is too thin. The junior senator lacks experience—the senior senator doesn’t have charisma. Contrasting images of the nation’s presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, are creating a buzz in the media. The sideshow, however, is becoming the main show as the sophomoric antics between the two senators’ campaigns are making it difficult to anticipate the would-be presidents’ positions. Less clear still are their plans for improving the nation’s crumbling roads and structurally deficient bridges.

That’s assuming either of them has a plan. In the heat of the summer, the campaigns of the two elected federal officials were in the midst of a name-calling spat. Their antics muted discussions about dire issues. Obama, while campaigning in June, ranted, “They’re going to try and make you afraid of me. ‘He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he is black?’” After which McCain’s campaign ran a web ad comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Following that juvenile prank, a second video was released of Obama as “the one” juxtaposed with a scene of Charlton Heston playing Moses in “The Ten Commandments.” The piece sarcastically says, “He can do no wrong.” Stranger than fiction, McCain said he was “proud of that commercial.”

Those concerned with rebuilding America have one choice: to review the record and ignore the banter. The American Road & Transportation Builder’s Association (ARTBA), a key inside-the-beltway transportation lobbying force, captured many of the following quotes of both elected federal officials of McCain and Obama. ARTBA attempts to be a group of centrists. In compiling a record of rhetoric called “The Presidential Candidates on Transportation,” the association said they do not “intend to constitute an endorsement of either candidate or party position.”

The intent of this article is to draw on this industry report and use the words and records of each candidate in an attempt to see what their transportation policies will be once elected.

Past performance is not a guaranteed indicator of future actions—but better than following the name-calling is looking at the highlights of each one’s Senate record, in their own words.

Respecting seniority, we’ll chronologically examine Sen. McCain’s longer record, follow up with the junior senator’s shorter record and end with a word from a great American transportation legacy.

The pork protector

Sen. McCain regularly attacks the gas tax—with attempts to eliminate it or reduce it. He regularly calls transportation projects “pork.” The Arizona senator claims that cutting the fat out of the transportation bill will provide funding for needed projects. He was absent and was not counted when voting on the nation’s most recent six-year transportation bill—the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU)—came up. Thus far he has not shown that he is a visionary when it comes to transport.

In 1998, he voted in favor of cutting the federal gas tax by 20%. McCain and 17 other U.S. senators were overruled by 80 of their colleagues. That same year he abstained from voting on the megalegislation that was eventually named the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). This bill alone provided $216 billion in funding ($175 billion for highways and $41 billion for mass transit).

In July 2000, he voted to eliminate the federal gas tax “temporarily.” The action was his way of getting more aggressive against the practice of using the federal gas tax to fund transportation projects that he has a record of calling “pork-barrel projects” and “bridges to nowhere.” The senator was on the losing side of the vote. The amendment did not pass.

Known for his disdain for Boston’s Big Dig, McCain lamented to the Boston Globe in August 2006, “I lost every time in our attempts to curb the spending on it and have closer oversight of it. When the whole long saga is written in books, it’ll astonish people.” When asked if he could see more federal funding flow to the megatransportation project, McCain said, “Oh, no. But anything can happen with this project.”

In September 2006, McCain gave Mary Peters, President Bush’s nominee for the U.S. secretary of transportation, an unorthodox introduction to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“Before Mary became involved in transportation, she was in the butchering business. She made her living by cutting pork. As I said during her last confirmation hearing, this background should come in very handy, and I urge her to rely heavily on her past pork-cutting expertise as she works to carry out her new responsibilities. Mary will undoubtedly face unlimited requests to support and fund members’ pork projects, but to the extent of her authority, those projects would more appropriately deserve the same treatment that she mastered as a butcher.”

While making his statement during a debate on SAFETEA-LU on May 12, 2005, McCain lamented, “When people look back 50 years from now at the highway legislation that the Senate will consider shortly, I doubt history will remember this Congress as having helped to improve on President Eisenhower’s ‘Grand Plan.’ We are no longer focused on building a unified transportation system to improve the safety, security and economy of our nation as a whole. Instead we are faced with legislation that redistributes funding to the states in a fiscally irresponsible and grossly unfair manner.”

Some insiders said, “SAFETEA-LU sounds like an outhouse with a seat belt.”

McCain was dismayed during SAFE­TEA-LU’s final debate in the Senate nearly three months later, saying, “This monstrosity of a conference report, which costs an astounding $286.4 billion, is both terrifying in its fiscal consequences and disappointing for the lack of fiscal discipline it represents. What will it take . . . to make the case for fiscal sanity in Congress?!”

A presidential debate sponsored and broadcasted by YouTube and CNN in November 2007 put a tough question to the candidates.

“It’s been estimated that to fix the bridges, the tunnels, the power grids, the water-delivery systems in this country will be in excess of $2 trillion—that is ‘t’ for trillion—and it is plural,” said the moderator. “Who among the candidates here is willing to step forward and begin to articulate the very difficult sacrifices which need to be made in order to start repairing America?”

Sen. McCain spoke up, “First thing I’ll do, my friends, is take out my veto pen and veto every single pork-barrel project that comes across my desk, and there will be no more bridges to nowhere under my administration, I promise you that. And we’ll give the president of the United States the line-item veto . . . We will take the money and give it back to the states and we’ll let them make these decisions, but we’ll never have another pork-barrel project as long as I am capable of wielding a veto pen.”

“The bridge in Minneapolis didn’t collapse because there wasn’t enough money. The bridge in Minneapolis collapsed because so much money was spent on wasteful, unnecessary pork-barrel projects,” said McCain while on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania eight months after the I-35W bridge disaster of Aug. 1, 2007.

Taking heat immediately, McCain defended his position to the press the next day while traveling in Iowa.

“When you divert money to projects that are unneeded and unwanted, any project that is deserved is not going to receive the funding necessary. And I will maintain again that I believe that when you fund a bridge to Alaska or you fund a highway in Florida that the people there don’t even want, then money is diverted from much-needed projects.”

McCain’s position against raising the gas tax echoes that of President Bush, who said in August 2007, “Before we raise [the gas tax], which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities.”

“I think high gas taxes are a regressive tax. Who drives the furthest?” McCain asked rhetorically while being interviewed by John Harwood on CNBC in April of this year. Answering his own question, McCain claimed, “The people who drive the furthest are the lowest-income Americans. It is incredibly regressive. Where is the fairness there? If someone thinks we ought to increase taxes on gas, they are laying a heavier burden on the lowest-income Americans and I don’t think that is fair to America.”

“You’d think that I was attacking Western civilization as we know it. The special interests, ‘Oh, my God. This will destroy our transportation system in America. This will have disastrous consequences,’” said a sarcastic McCain during an Iowa town meeting in May 2008. “Look, all I think is we ought to give low-income Americans, in particular, a little relief.”

The rail renovator

In July 2005, while debating his fledgling voting record in the final passage of SAFETEA-LU, Obama chose to herald his liberal views by discussing the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program.

“I strongly endorse the DBE Program and am pleased that this program continues to enjoy bipartisan support,” said the freshman senator from Illinois. “Since the DBE Program was started in 1982, the field of highway contractors has grown more racially diverse . . . the program has opened the doors for women contractors to join what has traditionally been an all-male field . . . there continues to be a strong need for the DBE Program. Unfortunately, studies have shown that when DBE Programs end, many contractors simply revert back to their old practices, denying contracts to small companies owned by minorities . . . It is clear that the DBE Program is still needed.”

In June 2006, while swinging through an economically depressed Flint, Mich., one city hit hard by jobs being moved overseas, Sen. Obama said, “If we want to keep up with China or Europe, we can’t settle for crumbling roads and bridges, aging water and sewer pipes and faltering electrical grids that cost us billions in blackouts, repairs and travel delays. A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt called together leaders from business and government to develop a plan for the 20th century infrastructure. It falls to us to do the same.

“As president, I will launch a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that will invest $60 billion over 10 years—a bank that can leverage private investment in infrastructure improvements and create nearly 2 million new jobs,” proclaimed Obama as he showcased the most proactive transportation-thinking initiative of either candidate.

Obama continued by mixing his domestic agenda with foreign policies, saying to the Michigan crowd, “The work will be determined by what will maximize our safety and security and ability to compete. We will fund this bank as we bring the war in Iraq to a responsible close. We can invest in rail so that cities like Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis are connected by high-speed trains and folks have alternatives to air travel. That’s what we can do if we commit to rebuild a stronger America.”

“We’ll unlock the potential of all our regions by connecting them with a 21st century infrastructure,” said Obama as he addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami in June 2006. “You see the traffic along I-95 in Miami. You see the crumbling roads and bridges . . . and it’s no wonder, because we are spending less on our infrastructure than at any time in the modern era. This is putting enormous pressure on the Highway Trust Fund, which can no longer keep up with all the repairs that have to be made.”

Taking McCain to task for his proposed gas-tax holiday, Obama hit hard, saying, “Yet Sen. McCain is actually proposing a gas-tax gimmick that would take $3 billion a month out of the Highway Trust Fund and hand it over to the oil companies. Well, at a time when the Highway Trust Fund is beginning to run a deficit for the first time in history, I think that’s the last thing we can afford to do.

“But when it comes to rebuilding America’s essential but crumbling infrastructure, we need to do more, not less. Maintaining our levees and dams isn’t pork-barrel spending. It’s an urgent priority, and that’s what we’ll do when I’m president,” promised Obama.

Taking the offensive and proactive position of the two candidates, Obama outlined a transportation platform in a policy paper titled “Strengthening America’s Transportation Infrastructure.” Out of about 1,200 words, the word “highways” is mentioned only once. In short, Obama’s transportation policy and vision can be boiled down to one word: rail. The senator’s paper states: “Barack Obama supports development of high-speed rail networks across the country,” and says he also has “been a strong supporter of federal financial support for Amtrak. Obama believes we need to reform Amtrak to improve accountability.”

The paper goes on to support air travel and improvements on roads and bridges, but rail dominates his transportation vision of the future. “Obama is committed to renewing the federal government’s commitment to high-speed rail so that our nation’s transportation infrastructure continues to support, and not hinder, our nation’s long-term economic growth.”

He outlines his support for inner city improvements, saying, “Three-quarters of welfare recipients live in areas that are poorly served by public transportation, and low-income workers spend up to 36% of their incomes on transportation. As president, Obama will work to eliminate transportation disparities so that all Americans can lead meaningful and productive lives.”

Ending, the paper says, “As a U.S. senator representing Chicago, Ill., one of the nation’s major rail transportation hubs, Obama has consistently advocated stronger rail and transit security programs.”

Endorsed by Eisenhower

America has arguably seen three great federal surface transportation eras. The first was during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. His ambitious secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, called for federal investment in internal improvements of canals, roads and waterways. Gallatin’s vision paved the way for the National Road, America’s first federally funded interstate highway. The railroads, privately funded for the most part, dominated for nearly a hundred years before the second golden era of federal investment in transportation took place between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II. The roaring ’20s and depressed 1930s were defined by unprecedented investments in federal road-building initiatives. Moving from byways to superhighways, the last great era of nation building began in 1956 with the construction of the U.S. Interstate System under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter, explained her view on the presidential campaign in the Washington Post in February 2008. “The last time the United States had an open election was 1952. My grandfather was pursued by both political parties and eventually became the Republican nominee. Despite being a charismatic war hero, he did not have an easy ride to the nomination. He went on to win the presidency—with the indispensable help of a Democrats for Eisenhower movement. These crossover voters were attracted by his pledge to bring change to Washington and by the prospect that he would unify the nation.

“I am not alone in worrying that my generation will fail to do what my grandfather’s did so well: leave America a better, stronger place than the one it found . . . Deep in America’s heart, I believe, is the nagging fear that our best years as a nation may be over. We are disliked overseas and feel insecure at home. We watch as our federal budget hemorrhages red ink and our civil liberties are eroded. Crises in energy, health care and education threaten our way of life and our ability to compete internationally. There are also the issues of a costly, unpopular war; a long-neglected infrastructure; and an aging and increasingly needy population . . . If the Democratic Party chooses Obama as its candidate, this lifelong Republican will work to get him elected and encourage him to seek strategic solutions to meet America’s greatest challenges. To be successful, our president will need bipartisan help.”

The media responded to the idea of a loyal Republican supporting Obama. “Let me ask you. You are a lifelong Republican. What’s wrong with the Republican Party?” asked a reporter of Eisenhower on MSNBC.

“Well, I don’t think it’s an issue of what’s wrong with the Republican Party as much as what’s right about Barack Obama. I think of all the candidates on the scene today he’s the one individual who can really begin a new era in American politics and begin the process of re-energizing the great American debate."

About the Author

McNichol is a freelance writer based in Boston.

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