Obama, Romney steer clear of auto bailout, transportation funding in debate

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“And because of the resilience and the determination of the American people, we’ve begun to fight our way back,” the president continued. “Over the last 30 months, we’ve seen 5 million jobs in the private sector created. The auto industry has come roaring back. And housing has begun to rise.”

When it was Romney’s turn to speak, he took a pass on speaking about the auto bailout. Instead, he ticked off a list of ideas for future job creation.

“This is obviously a very tender topic,” Romney said in response to moderator Jim Lehrer’s question about job creation. 

“I’ve had the occasion over the last couple of years of meeting people across the country,” Romney continued. “I was in Dayton, Ohio, and a woman grabbed my arm, and she said, ‘I’ve been out of work since May. Can you help me?’”

The lack of sustained focus on the auto bailouts by Obama was suprising because polls have shown attacks based on Romney's 2008 New York Times op-ed titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" have helped stake the president to a persistent lead in Ohio, a key swing state. 

Transportation observers said earlier Wednesday that they expected little other talk about road and transit issues during the debate between Obama and Romney, though they did expect to hear more about the auto bailout.

"I'm planning to have a slightly late dinner with my wife and a bottle of wine. I will fall out of my chair and spill my wine if anyone brings up transportation as a serious issue," said Smart Growth America Leadership Institute President Parris Glendening, who is also a former Democratic governor of Maryland. 

The closest either candidate came to making the former governor's dinner beverage hit the floor was a mention by Obama of the creation of the "Transcontinental Railroad" developed under Abraham Lincoln's administration in a discussion about the proper role of government.

"Look, the genius of America is the free enterprise system and freedom and the fact that people can go out there and start a business, work on an idea, make their own decisions. But as Abraham Lincoln understood, there are also some things we do better together," Obama said.

"So, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, let’s help to finance the Transcontinental Railroad, let’s start the National Academy of Sciences, let’s start land grant colleges, because we want to give these gateways of opportunity for all Americans, because if all Americans are getting opportunity, we’re all going to be better off," Obama continued. "That doesn’t restrict people’s freedom. That enhances it."

Joshua Schank, president of the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation, said Obama and Romney were continuing a trend that began in Congress by avoiding extensive talk about transportation funding. 

"There's been no evidence that anybody in Washington wants to address this issue in a serious way," Schank said. "You can't be against infrastructure investment, but nobody is going to stand up and say 'raise my gas taxes.' "

Lawmakers passed a $105 billion bill earlier this year to extend transportation funding for the next two years, but they did not identify a new consistent source of revenue for road and transit projects. Advocates have warned that the traditional source of money for highway spending, the federal gas tax, does not bring in enough money to cover the costs of maintaining the current U.S. transportation system, let alone expand it.

The 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax brings in about $36 billion a year. Lawmakers used a package that closed tax loopholes, increased fees and made transfers among trust funds to cover the shortfall through 2014. There has not been much talk about what to do after that, however, and neither Obama or Romney offered any ideas about it Wednesday night.

-This story was originally posted at 10:41 p.m. and it was updated with new information at 11:23 p.m.