Lest anyone think this is a partisan issue, there has been no change in transportation policy across the two Bush Administrations and the Obama Administration. All have promoted public private partnerships and toll roads as the panacea for road funding 'shortfalls.' Apparently, Romney will be no different.
Mitt Romney taps Bushies for transpo advice
Mitt Romney isn’t talking much about roads, runways or bridges — but behind the scenes he’s engaged a brain trust of transportation advisers who are.
The people advising him — though Romney’s campaign stresses that the team is informal — read like a who’s who of senior policymakers from President George W. Bush’s Department of Transportation. The agency at that time was heavily focused on privatization and maximum involvement of the private sector.
For the most part, the entire presidential campaign has been relatively quiet on the transportation front. Romney has talked about his desire to cut subsidies for Amtrak, and President Barack Obama has echoed his past positions — using the “peace dividend” to pay for more infrastructure investment, boosting transit and promoting high-speed rail.
But knowing about Romney’s idea bank may help transpo-watchers divine at least what the GOP nominee is hearing if not what he plans to do. And this list of advisers would likely be shoo-ins for senior positions in a Romney DOT.
The group with Romney’s ear, who all served under Bush in some manner, includes Tyler Duvall, who was for a time the DOT’s top policymaker; Jim Ray, who was counsel at both DOT and the Office of Management and Budget; Jeff Rosen, whose long resume includes being counsel for DOT and a stint at OMB as well as decades in the private sector; and Robyn Boerstling, who also worked at DOT’s policy shop and is now at the National Association of Manufacturers.
“It’s a group of people who really are into transportation, that care about transportation and that have had senior level national policy kind of jobs in transportation and really like it — it wasn’t kind of a waypoint for them,” said one auto industry lobbyist.
But as might be expected, the team is heavy on a privatization agenda, dovetailing with the Bush administration’s flagship stances spanning different modes. That would include an attempt to privatize some air traffic controllers and Amtrak, as well as a push for more toll roads and public-private partnerships for highways.
“It’s people who also have a kind of a very specific point of view about, even transportation programs which they love and consider important, that programs have to live within their means … that there are limits to what the feds can fund. And so every opportunity should be explored to kind of bring the private sector into play where it makes sense,” the lobbyist said.
Their tenure at the Bush DOT included a run at limiting the amount of spending done as part of the transportation law known as SAFETEA-LU.
Congress, led by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), then chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wanted a way higher price tag for that bill than the administration was willing to allow, touching off an inter-party fight that delayed the bill for months.
Duvall in particular is an ideas man. High energy and enthusiastic, Duvall specializes in taking chances and relishes dreaming up innovative ways to tackle a problem. For instance, he was instrumental in standing up the Bush DOT’s “Urban Partnerships” program, which basically served as a test bed for congestion pricing in urban areas, with a heavy focus on tolling.
But in so doing, Duvall ruffled a lot of feathers — the Urban Partnerships program was financed by vacuuming up what had previously been an earmark slush fund for appropriators, instantly creating hard feelings on the Hill for people who lost turf. While appropriators rarely forget a grab at their jurisdiction, it does align Duvall with the current anti-earmark fervor.
“They took that money and created their own program,” said one transportation lobbyist. “That really pissed a lot of people off on the Hill, but it was more jurisdictional, now that I think back on it.”
At the time, even Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), now the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, had some choice words; in comments to The Washington Post, Mica said the DOT used this money to “buy off” urban areas, and he called Duvall and others at the Bush DOT “myopic” in regards to their views on tolling.
In the same article, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) was a lot sharper, calling Duvall a “pointy-headed neocon with grand ideas about the future of transportation, and they all involve tolling.”
Duvall, an intellectual on a mission, is also known for rubbing people the wrong way. And transit boosters see him as openly hostile to their interests.
In any case, few disagree with his transportation bona fides. “That’s the guy I call when I can’t figure out stuff — he’s the big thinker,” said one infrastructure lobbyist. “I think the fact that Tyler was pulled in shows someone knows what they’re doing.”
Much the same sentiments were expressed about Ray, who served as counsel for DOT and also was acting administrator for the Federal Highway Administration before leaving for a stint at OMB. He’s well-respected in transportation circles, has a reputation as someone who gets the job done and has friends on Capitol Hill, where he worked in the offices of the former Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.).
He also has some past ties with Romney’s administration from the candidate’s time as Massachusetts governor. When the ceiling tiles fell on Boston’s Big Dig tunnel project in 2006, the DOT sent Ray to the scene to help perform triage, “so he would’ve worked directly with Romney’s people in Massachusetts,” said one source familiar with the matter.
At FHWA, Ray pushed against earmarks and was heavily engaged in the TIFIA program, giving him a deep knowledge of leveraging instruments that conservatives see as crucial to solving the Highway Trust Fund problem. Since he’s been in private practice, sources familiar with his work say he’s consulted heavily on public private partnerships, with many states as clients.
The team also has another heavy hitter in Rosen, who some may best remember for his involvement in the Bush administration’s push to privatize Amtrak. He was at the department when the administration proposed to zero out Amtrak’s federal subsidy. And as a member of Amtrak’s board of directors, he was involved in a vote to fire the former head of Amtrak, David Gunn, a results-oriented railroad man who was immensely popular on Capitol Hill even when Amtrak wasn’t. (Rosen served on the board as a surrogate for then-Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.)
“Rosen is super smart,” said one industry source. “If you go back and look at some of the things Rosen championed, especially when he moved to OMB — he was a very hard-core cost-benefit guy.”
Boerstling and Duvall have a history — at DOT, she worked for him. One source called her "very capable" and guessed that she would be focused on executing ideas.
Duvall in particular may offer fans of devolution — essentially, turning federal transportation spending back to the states — something to cheer about.
“He was certainly a big devolution proponent, to the maximum degree possible,” said one lobbyist, speculating that this viewpoint would likely be something that could resonate with Romney, who has suggested a preference for letting states be in charge of many areas of public policy.
But another source who has worked with all of the Romney transportation brain trust in the past offered some solace for those who are nervous about massive changes to the status quo and new attempts to privatize various pieces of the transportation system.
“It’s not as bad as some people are going to think. These people are also pragmatists and they’ve been around for the old [failed] privatization battles,” he said. “They’re not going to try to push a fight that they’re not going to win.”