“I’d hope he’d go back to the way he was as governor of Massachusetts,” said Whitman, a George W. Bush-era EPA chief, during an interview with POLITICO on Tuesday. “Because in that position, he was finding the balance that can be struck between environmental protection and economic growth, because it’s not a zero-sum game.”
It’s well-documented that Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is at odds with Massachusetts Governor Romney on climate and health-care policy. Less well known is the stark contrast in community development and transportation investments.
The Anti-Sustainable-Development GOP Platform
Describing President Obama’s community development and transportation investments in the GOP platform entails breathlessly inflammatory terms. Flipping through it, I found such gems as:
- The current Administration replaces “civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit” (p. 5);
- “We condemn the current Administration’s continued assaults on state governments in…land use decisions.” (p. 11); and of course
- “We strongly reject Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty and we oppose any form of U.N. global tax.” (p. 45)
The platform fires several shots across the bow of those in the Administration who have been working to funnel federal dollars to sustainable communities, as best embodied by the Sustainable Communities Partnership between DOT, EPA and HUD. This partnership invests hundreds of billions of dollars in planning, design and construction of innovative development and transportation projects nationwide.
The platform also beats up on the obscure Agenda 21. I remember when this laundry list of concepts for sustainable development was put together about 20 years ago. It was intended to provide guidance and ideas for national and local governments around the world. As with many U.N. publications, its influence is hortatory at best. No one in the U.S. seriously contemplates adopting it, despite bizarre histrionics about it on the internet. It does, however, include some ideas for activities that sound laudable, especially in chapter 7 “Promoting Sustainable Human Settlement Development”:
- “Develop fiscal incentives and land-use control measures, including land-use planning solutions for a more rational and environmentally sound use of limited land resources.”
- “Integrate land-use and transportation planning to encourage development patterns that reduce transport demand.”
- “Encourage non-motorized modes of transport by providing safe cycleways and footways in urban and suburban centres in countries, as appropriate.”
- Devote particular attention to traffic management, efficient operation of public transport and maintenance of transport infrastructure.”
Sound familiar? These are the very same kinds of activities initiated and directed by Governor Romney and his team in Massachusetts, as described below. Yet the Republican platform explicitly condemns the entire document containing them.
Then-Governor Romney: A Champion of Sustainability
The Obama Administration’s sustainable communities program is modeled in part on a Romney initiative, or at least on the Massachusetts-Governor-Romney who seems to hew to different principles from the running-for-President version on a host of issues.
When he first came into office, Romney already planned to “elevate sustainability to a state priority” and “set an integrated agenda for agencies and departments whose activities shape the quality of our environment” (source: Romney-Healey PowerPoint presentation). Upon taking the helm he created a new supercabinet agency, the Office of Commonwealth Development (OCD), linking transportation, housing, environment and energy policies. Doug Foy, former head of the activist Conservation Law Foundation, led the new agency through its first three years. This entity, and the staff who ran it, made a serious downpayment towards sustainable community development in the Bay State.
OCD was specifically tasked with lining up the state’s substantial (hundreds of millions of dollars) capital spending via a new “Commonwealth Capital” fund in order to ensure:
- Consistency of projects with smart growth;
- Alignment of municipal policies and zoning with state interest in smart growth;
- Coordination of agency decision-making. (Source: PowerPoint presentation by Steve Burrington, Undersecretary of the Office of Commonwealth Development)
This new office and fund were just two of the tools put in place for boosting the state’s role in sustainable community development under the Romney Administration. His administration created a “fix-it-first” program for infrastructure investment. It started a “communities first” program which produced a project design manual that includes requirements for routine accommodation of bicyclists and pedestrians in road-building, better known as Complete Streets and originally included in the federal transportation bill until the GOP-controlled House of Representatives nixed it. It awarded grants for smart-growth planning in Massachusetts and in 2005 Romney bragged about these grants saying “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.” Romney also signed a new law, called “Chapter 40R, that ties serious state incentives for cities and towns that re-zone to accommodate more compact, walkable development.
In short, Massachusetts Governor Romney aggressively managed state dollars and rules to drive sustainable community development in the Bay State.
But now he’s flipped by jettisoning sustainability principles and hewing to an extremist GOP platform. This is extremely disappointing, and worthy of more media coverage. Governor Romney not only endorsed but pursued smart growth and sustainable development as chief executive of Massachusetts. It was a good, fiscally and environmentally responsible program then, and deserves support now.
The bottom line? Presidential candidate Mitt Romney should take a cue from Massachusetts Governor Romney by supporting sustainable community development.