Alec MacGillis has a great piece in The New Republic on Mitt Romney’s long-lost history as a smart-growth proponent. Back when he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney had a lot of quite progressive ideas about how to curb driving and tamp down on suburban sprawl:

Romney and [his transportation guru Douglas] Foy wasted little time in putting smart-growth policies to work. The state, they declared, would take a “fix-it-first” approach to highway spending—repairing existing roads instead of building new ones. They also pledged to cut the number of SUVs in the state fleet. In addition, the state put out a new highway-design manual intended to make towns more pedestrian-friendly, with narrower streets designed for slower driving speeds.

“It was all really woolly, totally green, new-urbanist stuff—and it was state policy,” says Anthony Flint, who covered land-use issues for The Boston Globe and went on to join Foy’s office in 2005. The biggest move came in 2004, when Romney signed legislation, dubbed Chapter 40R, providing funds to towns and cities that agreed to allow more high-density, multi-family housing. “It was fundamentally anti-sprawl. It was saying that the days of having a developer buy a Christmas tree farm and throw up a bunch of single-family homes on half-acre lots were over,” Flint recalls. “It was a real awakening.”

Smart-growth planning has always been one environmental issue that politicians are leery of touching. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was stumping for California’s far-reaching climate law, he frequently shied away from policies to promote denser development and reduce car dependence. Even in deep-blue California, it’s a volatile issue. But as MacGillis reports, Romney was sincerely and energetically engaged on this issue — at least until he started getting White House buzz, at which point his interest in the issue fizzled out.