LaHood: ‘About Everything We Do Around Here Is Government Intrusion’

Ray LaHood is known for his disarming candor — his recent admission that he’s not "that great a transportation person" being a case in point — and those qualities were on vivid display today as the Transportation Secretary delivered an address to the National Press Club.

LaHood’s speech was aimed at countering a recent flurry of media coverage that questioned the potential for success, as well as the spend-out rate, of the White House’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan. But his feistiest pushback ended up coming in response to the George Will column that already has sparked a debate challenge from Portland’s local congressman.

lahood.jpgPresident Obama’s got Ray LaHood’s back — and his tie. (Photo by whitehouse via Flickr.)

Asked if his emphasis on livable communities was, as Will’s column argued, a veiled effort to "make driving more torturous" and "coerce people out of their cars," LaHood was unbowed.

"It is a way to coerce people out of their cars," he said, observing that few people enjoy spending an hour behind the wheel to travel to work or run an errand. While every community cannot be redesigned to coax more residents onto transit or bikes, he added, the encouragement of those opportunities is important.

"The only person I’ve heard object to this is George Will," LaHood said. Pressed again to answer conservative critics who see the hand of Big Government in his agenda, the former Republican congressman quipped: "About everything we do around here is government intrusion in people’s lives."

But LaHood didn’t stop there. He went on to address local transit agency budgets, how to fund the next six-year federal transportation bill and other pressing questions.

It was already pretty apparent to Washingtonians that the Obama administration would not support an increase in the gas tax, nor introduce a tax on vehicle miled traveled (VMT), in order to pay for the upcoming federal transportation bill. Still, LaHood put the final nail in the coffin, saying: "Now is not a very good time to be talking about raising taxes … this administration is not going to be promoting an increase in the gas tax."

LaHood took a more progressive line when it comes to state and local transit agencies that are struggling to pay their bills despite increased service demands. Current rules prohibit states and localities from using federal money to pay for operating costs, trapping agencies like New York’s MTA in a punishing deficit cycle, but LaHood said that needs to change.

"It’s a little silly to provide all this [federal] money for buses if [states and cities] can’t hire drivers," he said. "I’m certainly open-minded about the ability for transit districts, particularly during times like this, to use some of their money for operating."

The transportation chief was less open about providing help for the trucking industry, which has been hit hard by the recession, and airlines that are worried about high-speed rail cutting into their business. Asked about the likelihood of federal help for both industries, LaHood was noncommittal.

  • Chris in Sacramento

    I’m starting to like his style.

    It will be curious to see if “no new taxes” holds. Perhaps we could live with a bill that provides no extra funding beyond current levels but also:

    * provides transit with equity in terms of matching funds requirements
    * makes transit operations eligible for federal funding
    * includes a strong complete streets provision
    * links transportation funding to plans for reducing GHG emissions and other air pollution
    * keeps whole existing pots of money that are pro-livable communities, such as Enhancements and Safe Routes to School

    I’ve seen worse bills come out of D.C.

  • Woody

    In the current crisis, it certainly seems like the time to use federal money to cover operating deficits. Old timers like me recall, however, that it didn’t go so well back in the 60s and 70s, when federal funds were regularly available for operations. The anti-government and anti-transit types claimed that the federal money all ended up in fatter pensions and other benefits, and bigger raises, for the mostly unionized transit workers, leaving next to nothing for extra trains or more frequent bus service, etc, to serve the public.

    The worst part was that they were right. And that unfortunate fact undermined support for federal funding even for transit expansion projects for the next two or three decades.

    So any use of federal funds for operations this time needs to short term and be carefully limited or we could end up worse off than now.

  • TAS

    Here’s the thing, folks: if you like Secretary LaHood’s position on transit operating costs, tell your legislators. For that matter, whatever you want transportation-wise, tell your legislators. Elana’s current beat is all about the massive surface transportation reauthorization underway in Congress. We’re gonna have to live with the outcome for the next 5 years. If you want something in there, please, TELL YOUR LEGISLATORS.

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