As one of the rare members of his party to support Amtrak funding, Ray LaHood proved to be no ordinary Republican during his seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. This is seen as one of the traits that earned the former Congressman from Peoria, Ill. a spot in President Barack Obama's cabinet as transportation secretary. LaHood's friendship with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel didn't hurt his chances for the post, either.
Between administering the roughly $48 billion dedicated to transportation projects in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the $787 billion federal stimulus package) and helping Congress develop a new, long-term transportation spending plan, LaHood, who turns 64 in December, was thrust into action from the get-go. In an exclusive interview, AAA caught up with the man who holds the keys to the nation's surface, air and maritime networks to discuss the future of America's transportation infrastructure.
Q Now that you've been in charge of the U.S. Department of Transportation for a few months, how would you describe the current state of the nation's roads, bridges and mass transit systems?
A America is one big pothole right now. We've ignored our infrastructure for too long, and I'm proud to be a part of an administration that's really stepping up, providing the money not only to fill potholes but to rebuild roads, resurface roads, and, in some instances, build some new roads. It's the first time, in a long time, because the states haven't had the money. The priority on infrastructure and roads just has not been the kind of priority that it is today.
Q What are some of the ways that transportation projects funded by the Recovery Act are going to revive the economy?
A I was with the Vice President in St. Cloud, Minnesota, at a bus company [New Flyer of America Inc.] where they make busses, and this bus company was actually going to shutter its doors. As a result of the fact that we are going to give $8 billion to transit districts, they had to put on another shift. That's a clear example. I believe, as this construction season phases out as winter comes on this year, we'll be able to show that we put thousands of people to work in good paying jobs and that roads in America will be rebuilt.
Q The so-called Bridge to Nowhere created an unfavorable opinion of how the government funds transportation projects. What components are there in the Recovery Act to restore the public trust in the way the government is funding these projects?
A There are no boondoggles, no earmarks, no sweetheart deals. None. We have a Web site called recovery.gov. I hope you'll put it in your story, recovery.gov, so everybody who reads your story can click onto that Web site and see the map of where these dollars are going. They can see that these are not earmark dollars. They are not sweetheart deals. They are not contracts that somebody was given because they know somebody's uncle who works for a politician. These were given on the merits of these projects, and eventually, we'll be able to tell how many people are going to work.
Q How do the administration's goals on transportation fit in with the goals of other cabinet departments?
A On climate change, high-speed rail is all about making America greener, and livable communities is about climate change and making America greener. The new CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards are about working with automobile manufacturers to cut down on CO2 [carbon dioxide] and make our country greener.
Q How did you get so interested in trains?
A It has more to do with creating this concept of livable communities. The model for it is Portland, Oregon, and it has to do with the opportunities for people who want to ride their bike to work, or walk to work, or take light rail to work or take a bus. The idea for this really comes from the president and his team. The president lived in Chicago, and people who live in Chicago use a lot of mass transit.
Q What's it going to take to get more Americans to use mass transit?
A Providing mass transit that people feel comfortable riding—whether it's a bus, light rail or a streetcar—and making them efficient and cost effective. There's a light-rail system in Houston that goes from downtown out to their medical center. This is a marvelous thing for people who can't afford an automobile, because they can get to their doctor or their hospital.
Q What role can the government play in improving safety?
A As someone who has run for public office seven times and been in politics for 30 years, I know that if you tell someone something often enough, they start to believe it. If you tell somebody they can save their life by buckling their seatbelt, and you tell it often enough, and you give examples, they'll start to do it.
Our job really is to get the message out. We've tried to do it through "Click It or Ticket," and we've tried to do it with other things to promote safety. People can see DOT as a place they can look to to find out about the safest vehicles to drive, because we perform crash tests on vehicles, and we put out a whole scorecard on all the vehicles on our Web site [www.safercar.gov].
Q Last summer's $4-a-gallon gasoline prices were unnerving for a lot of people. What is the administration doing to avoid a repeat of these conditions?
A I think the bill that came out of the [U.S. House] Energy and Commerce Committee [The American Clean Energy and Security Act] is an example of where the administration is taking great steps to relieve our dependence on crude oil, particularly imported crude oil. The CAFE standards for 2011, 2012 and 2016 are another example where the administration is taking steps to send a message to people that America can build cars that can get 35 miles to the gallon.
The other positive thing that happened with $4-a-gallon gasoline is that people started riding Amtrak a lot more and found it to be efficient and cost effective. People started riding the metro systems, the mass transit systems and found them to be pretty good systems. It helped people understand that you don't always have to get in your car if you want to go somewhere.
Photography courtesy U.S. Department of Transportation
This article was first published in September 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.