Senator Dukakis? What the Loss of Kennedy Could Mean for Transport Policy

As the nation mourns the loss of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), a discussion has begun over how to fill his outsized shoes, both in Massachusetts' Senate seat and atop the Senate health committee -- two vacancies that could have notable consequences for transportation policy-making.

amd_michael_dukakis.jpgIs rail booster Michael Dukakis headed for the U.S. Senate? (Photo: NY Daily News)

In Boston, state legislators are mulling whether to grant Kennedy's request to reverse the 2004 law that prevents the governor from naming an interim senator to serve in his stead until a special election can be held.

If the reversal occurs, one leading contender for the post has already been name-checked favorably by the Boston Globe: 1988 Democratic presidential nominee and ardent transit advocate Michael Dukakis.

Dukakis, a former chairman of Amtrak's board of directors, is a longtime champion of expanded rail investment. He has candidly called out state and local governments for dragging out the planning process for new transit projects and urged the construction of a northeastern high-speed rail network on the presidential campaign trail 22 years ago.

A Dukakis appointment would not last long, but it would give rail an influential voice in Washington at a time when billions of dollars in new spending are at stake.

In addition, Dukakis would be well-positioned to help carry the pro-transit banner during this fall's debate over climate change legislation, which could give clean transport 10 percent of carbon allowances or a paltry 1 percent.

But the Massachusetts Senate seat is not the only opening left by Kennedy's loss. His chairmanship of the Senate health committee must be claimed permanently, and Kennedy's close friend Chris Dodd (D-CT) is next in line.

Dodd, however, would have to give up the reins of the Banking Committee -- which also has jurisdiction over transit -- in order to replace Kennedy. Dodd has said little so far about his ultimate choice, but his approval rating has suffered thanks to his close ties to Wall Street and he might be helped by leaving the Banking panel for the health committee.

Who, then, would take over the Senate's prime seat for transit policy? Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is a vocal supporter of local agencies' priorities, but he remains a junior member of the committee. The two senior senators considered most likely to replace Dodd as Banking chairman are Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Jack Reed (D-RI).

Though Johnson and Reed both hail from small states, their track records on transit and green transport issues are strong. Johnson introduced legislation this year that would give more federal aid to rural transit agencies and allow them to use money from Washington for operating expenses to carry more elderly and disabled passengers.

Reed, for his part, decried the nationwide transit budget crisis in a March statement to the banking committee and said that "one of the [stimulus] law's largest shortcomings" was its failure to provide operating assistance for local transit agencies.

"I believe that we should consider providing transit agencies greater flexibility to use" federal money on operating costs in the long term, Reed said.