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Presidential Candidates Bypass Substantive Land Use, Metropolitan Policy Issues

Barack Obama and John McCain are both selling themselves to the American people as reformers. And neither was raised in a conventional American city or suburb. So you'd think that they would have unconventional ideas about how to deal with growth, planning, and development issues.

Think again. By and large, the two presidential candidates have adopted utterly conventional partisan positions on these issues – when they talk about them at all, which is almost never. Barack Obama managed to utter the phrase "cities to rebuild" in his acceptance speech in Denver. John McCain said not a word, though he did name as his running mate the first former mayor on a presidential ticket in 40 years.

Neither candidate has said much – at least in a high-profile way – about environmental policy or transportation funding, the two federal programs that typically affect planning and development patterns the most. This is more than a bit surprising when you consider that climate change appears to be the greatest environmental challenge of all time and the federal transportation trust fund is broke.

The two candidates could not be more different in their background on cities and development. Though he grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, Obama has been rooted as an adult in the South Side of Chicago – a distinctive urban landscape if ever there was one. He worked there 20 years ago as a community organizer and in his presidential campaign has continued to identify himself with the "place" aspects of his home turf, including the intellectual oasis of Hyde Park near the University of Chicago, where he lives, and the struggling African-American neighborhoods that surround it.

McCain, on the other hand, often comes across as a guy who didn't grow up anywhere in particular, although the truth is that he has spent more time inside the Beltway than anywhere else. Born and raised mostly on Naval bases, McCain went to high school in suburban Washington and then became a Naval officer himself. Late in his military career he lived in Washington to attend the Naval War College and serve as the Naval liaison to the Senate. He moved to Arizona in 1981, after retiring from the Navy and marrying into a prominent Phoenix family, but he was elected to Congress the next year and has been there ever since.

When he was accused of being a carpetbagger during his first run for Congress, McCain told a newspaper reporter, "I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi."

Though neither has said much about cities or development in the campaign, at least Obama's issues operation has addressed these topics in detail. (The best place to find Obama's stuff is at http://barackobama.com/issues.) He has promised to create a White House Office of Urban Policy. And he has generally accepted the urban and metropolitan policy ideas from the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program with very few edits.

In June, Obama gave a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors that could have been delivered by Bruce Katz of Brookings. In the presentation, "A Metropolitan Strategy for America," Obama said: "To seize the possibility of this moment, we need to promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth." In his policy papers, Obama has supported such ideas as federal support for "regional innovation clusters" and creation of a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank staked with $60 billion for federal transportation financing.

McCain, on the other hand, has no specific policy addressed at cities, metropolitan areas or even transportation infrastructure. He has focused a lot of policy attention – as has Obama – on energy independence, proposing everything from a new emphasis on renewable resources to the construction of 45 nuclear power plants. (The best place to find McCain's policy stuff is at www.johnmccain.com/Informing/Issues.)

The one interesting policy position McCain has taken is on climate change. He has come out strongly for a federal cap-and-trade system  that would limit carbon emissions nationally and create a market among carbon emitters. He held back from supporting the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill because he wanted incentives for nuclear energy, even though Sen. Joseph Lieberman is one of McCain's closest friends in the Senate. But he has supported the concept of greenhouse gas emissions reductions and has not backed away from unconventional approaches.

Obama's position on cap-and-trade is more or less the same as McCain's, and he has actually moved closer to McCain during the campaign on issues such as oil drilling.

Probably the biggest question on both sides is how the two candidates would handle the issue of funding federal transportation programs. Other than environmental regulation, transportation spending is probably the most important role the federal government plays in shaping urban and suburban growth patterns. But the federal transportation trust fund is broke and in fact just got an $8 billion bailout from other federal funds. The reason is that the trust fund is funded with gas tax – and the gas tax is not indexed to the price of gas. As the price of gas goes up, gas consumption goes down, and federal gas tax funds shrink. It's also probably true that Congress has oversubscribed the trust fund, partly (to be fair to McCain) because of earmarks.

Obama has a long list of transportation spending priorities – again largely borrowed from Brookings, with an emphasis on freight as well as passenger movement – and has given indications that he takes metropolitan transportation issues seriously. At a recent forum on transportation organized by the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago, McCain sent Rep. Jim Durkin, while Obama sent former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros.

But neither side has said much about how they would actually close the transportation funding gap. Increasing or indexing the gas tax would make policy sense, but it would be bad politics on both sides. A gas tax increase would hit the working- and middle-class hard, so Obama can't propose it. And McCain's an anti-tax Republican. In fact, last summer, when the price of gas was going through the roof, McCain proposed a federal gas-tax holiday, which would have put the transportation trust fund even deeper in the hole. Perhaps he's planning to plug the gap by eliminating all the bridges to nowhere in the federal budget.

More than likely, either McCain or Obama would create new revenue through mechanisms that will cost people money but can't be classified as taxes. Higher freight fees to pay for new infrastructure are almost inevitable, for example. And if the feds create a cap-and-trade system, it will be very tempting to withhold and auction most of the carbon allowances, rather than distribute them to polluters for free – not because this is a good policy idea (which it might be), but because it will generate zillions of dollars for the federal government.

As any economist will tell you, capping carbon emissions and auctioning off the allowances has almost the same effect as a tax. But at least a Republican in Congress can vote for it and not call it a tax.

It's been a pretty dismal campaign season so far, with topics such as pig lipstick, unfortunately, taking precedence over more substantive issues. That means we do not quite know what Obama or McCain would do. The substantive policy discussion will have to wait, ironically enough, until after the election.