Tuesday Profile: Mr. Smart Growth

Former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening no longer enjoys the trappings of elected office, but he is still working on the growth and transportation issues that were a big part of his tenure in Annapolis.

Glendening, a Democrat, is president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, a Washington-based group that encourages elected leaders to create “walkable communities” organized around public transportation and environmental preservation.

It’s fitting that Glendening is at the helm of the group, as he is widely credited with coining the term that now defines its mission.

“I’m one of those old-fashioned people who believe very strongly that policy matters,” said Glendening, who began using the term “smart growth” during a campaign against suburban sprawl in his first term as governor. 

“We did not get into this sprawl, [this] wasteful energy mess by chance. Policy was put in place that reinforced what we see out there,” he said.

Glendening supports President Obama’s State of the Union call for infrastructure improvements to “win the future” and said he was particularly encouraged by Obama’s focus on global competitiveness — a message he hopes will resonate with policymakers in Washington.

“The Obama administration is trying to do some very good things,” he said.

But just as quickly, Glendening said he was “very pessimistic” about the growing Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s high-speed rail initiatives. Glendening said he has seen firsthand during his travels how emerging nations such as China are edging ahead of the U.S. with state-of-the-art public transportation systems.

“They see oil prices going up as well,” and are acting to respond, he said.

Pushing for more public transportation was a hallmark of Glendening’s career in public office. As chief executive of Prince George’s County in the 1980s, he was instrumental in ending the legal wrangling that held up the construction of Metro’s Green Line. 

Glendening predicts trains will become more popular across the country if gas prices reach $7 to $10, which he says will happen by the end of the decade. He said he uses the prospect of skyrocketing gas prices when he tries to secure corporate support for mass transportation projects. 

“For businesspeople … When that [price increase] happens, how do your workers get to work?” he said.

The former governor has a two-pronged policy prescription for the nation’s infrastructure ills. In an op-ed on The Hill’s Congress Blog after the State of the Union address, Glendening and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman argued that road repairs and public transportation projects would provide the most bang for the taxpayer buck.

“Historically, investments in public transportation generate 31 percent more jobs per dollar than new roads; road and bridge repairs create 16 percent more jobs per dollar than new construction,” Glendening and Whitman wrote.

Obama requested a funding increase for infrastructure in his 2012 budget, but it’s unclear whether that proposal can pass Congress. House Republicans have made cuts to government spending their No. 1 mission and are unlikely to buy into Obama’s $51 billion increase for 2012.

“We were just about ready to make progress, and then the last election happened,” Glendening said.

The GOP’s midterm election wave swept away veteran House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.). Florida Republican John Mica took his spot as leader of that panel.

Mica supports infrastructure improvements but disagrees with many of the Obama administration’s initiatives, particularly the rail grants that were part of the stimulus. Mica told The Hill in a recent interview that he supports high-speed rail “where it makes sense” but argues most of the funding should come from the private sector.

Despite the policy disagreements, Glendening said Mica is someone transit advocates can work with.

“We high-speed rail and transit advocates are not alarmed that he’s the chairman,” Glendening said, though he noted that he has not yet met Mica.

“He’s been reasonable on these issues in the past,” Glendening said. 

On the state level, Glendening said he disagrees with Republican governors who have rejected federal funding for high-speed rail projects— “there’s a link between rail and sustainability,” he argued — but said he recognizes the pinch state leaders are in.

“Six of the eight years I was governor, I had [a budget] surplus, so I could do some things,” he said. “I sympathize with some of the people [in office] today.”

But even in lean times, political leaders can invest in growth and transportation and still do well at the polls, Glendening said. He points to the current occupant of his old job, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who was reelected by 14 percentage points last year after increasing taxes to pay for education programs.

“If you’re honest with the public and they can see what they’re getting,” Glendening said, public support for spending increases is achievable.

Glendening, 68, has quietly kept active in Maryland politics since leaving the governor’s mansion in 2003. He advised six state and local candidates who were challenging incumbents last year because they backed the smart-growth cause.

“There’s an advantage in being a former governor who is still young enough to be active, but not young enough to be a threat to anyone,” he said.

 One of the candidates Glendening advised, Maryland state Sen. Bill Ferguson, was a sophomore in college when the former governor left office. But Ferguson, 27, said the former governor was “an incredible resource in knowing how to prioritize the many demands of running for public office.”

“Gov. Glendening is an example of what an exceptional public servant should be, and having the chance to learn from him and utilize his experience made me a better candidate and hopefully a better legislator,” Ferguson said in an email to The Hill.

Glendening enjoys mentoring up-and-coming politicians, and said his work at the Smart Growth Institute is all about the next generation.

“I have a son who is 31 and a daughter who is 8,” he said. “I really started thinking about what kind of world I was going to leave them. This is doing my part to leave a better world.”