LaHood Praises NYC But Shrugs at Transport Reform to Empower Cities

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood praised the New York City area's clean-transportation strategy today in a speech to the region's metropolitan planning organization (MPO), promising a stronger focus on urban priorities even as he all but ruled out two reforms long sought by the nation's cities.

Trans_Secretary_Ray_LaHood_Discusses_Cash_Jx_HxR08cPwl.jpgTransportation Secretary Ray LaHood (Photo: Zimbio)
LaHood's speech to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council was well-received by a large crowd of local officials and voters. "In the months ahead, you can expect things to work differently at the DOT," he said, vowing to "provide greater flexibility to metro areas."

As U.S. policy-makers craft climate change policy, LaHood said, "the New York-New Jersey region will, by design and by necessity, point the way forward."

But after his remarks, LaHood revealed the limits of the Obama administration's ultimate willingness to give cities a stronger voice in transportation decision-making. Asked by NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan about the possibility of allowing urban areas to "opt in" for direct aid from Washington -- an idea backed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg earlier this year -- LaHood demurred.

"I think MPOs will be looked at differently in the new [federal transportation] bill than they have in the past, to take into account the fact that cities and suburbs have been overlooked," LaHood said. "We know that's an issue."

He added: "Whether we could ever get back to some sort of revenue-sharing [with state DOTs], probably not -- but we could put some emphasis in the new bill for communities to have more of a say in how dollars are spent."

Sadik-Khan also raised an issue that has frustrated transit advocates for years: the federal government's policy of matching local funds for roads at an 80-20 ratio, while transit projects receive a less favorable 50-50 federal-to-local match. LaHood's response suggested that highways would continue to benefit from that advantage.

"The match for transit, as you say, is 50-50," LaHood told Sadik-Khan. "I don’t think the highway people are going to want to go to a 50-50 match. I think you were thinking about going the other way, 80-20 for transit ... well, I take your point."

LaHood, a 14-year veteran House Republican from Illinois before he joined the Obama Cabinet this year, did offer some constructive advice for city planners and residents.

Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi observed that New York, like many urban areas, sends more federal tax dollars to Washington than it receives in aid -- one of the few areas in which the city "get[s] back more than we give," as Suozzi put it, is transportation.

"Can you give us any advice about how to be more effective in getting more money from the federal government?" he asked LaHood.

The Cabinet member's answer touched on a theme that Streetsblog Capitol Hill has discussed in the past: the disconnect between Congress' uneven focus on urban-dominated states and the high number of senior lawmakers who hail from the nation's cities. LaHood said:

The way to get more money ... is to talk to your delegation. We used to get less [federal money] back for Illinois ... until we elected the Speaker of the House from Illinois; then, that changed. You've got some very significant members of Congress from New York, not least of which is the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the chairman of the Rules Committee. You've got very strong senators. ... It's going to come when your delegation says, 'Hey, this region has got its act together. Now we need to pull together.'