I had the chance to sit down with Ray LaHood yesterday morning before he spoke to the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, looking back on his four years at the helm of the U.S. Department of Transportation. We’ll publish the interview in three installments over the next few days. Here’s the first part.
Tanya Snyder: There was a long lead up to your announcement, a little bit beyond where a lot of other Cabinet members announced their intentions. What was going on then?
Ray LaHood: I had met with the president after his re-election and we talked about the future. He made it clear to me that he wanted me to stay and thought it was important for me to stay. And I was very conflicted because I think it’s really time for me to move on, and even though we have a lot of significant projects going on, and programs, I still felt it was time for somebody else to have this opportunity.
So the president asked me to think about my decision and I did think about it for a while, but eventually I just felt it was time for me to do something else.
And as I’ve said, this is the best job I’ve ever had. It’s a great job. It’s a job where you can really get a lot of good things done, a lot of significant things.
We started out with the economic recovery, $48 billion. We did CAFE. We did a lot of stuff with our colleagues at the FAA. We traveled the country in collaboration with our colleagues from HUD and EPA talking about livable and sustainable communities. We implemented a whole new streetcar project around the country. We implemented the president’s vision for high-speed rail.
I think that for the first time in the history of DOT, people actually knew who the secretary was — and also knew that DOT was not just about building roads and bridges. It was about building communities. It was about engaging community leaders, and mayors, and stakeholders in the biking area, in the green community, and really giving people alternatives in transportation. So if they wanted to get out of their car, they could bike to work. If they wanted to develop a streetcar project, that the potential was there for it.
I think you’ll see a pretty bold vision from the president, bolder than in the first term.
We developed partnerships all over the country, and not only with the biking community, the high-speed rail community, mayors, governors, people who really wanted to get things done in transportation.
This was a very, very tough decision for me. I think the potential is there to continue to make a lot of progress — particularly with the president’s vision.
TS: You know better than anyone what makes for a good secretary of transportation. What should the president look for in picking a new secretary?
RL: To continue his vision; to carry out his agenda. His agenda is an agenda of putting people to work. That’s what we do at DOT. Every project we do puts people to work.
That’s what the president really cares about it: getting the economy moving. And there’s no better way to do it than through infrastructure and though the Department of Transportation. No president has ever had a vision like President Obama on high-speed rail; no president has ever invested $12 billion in passenger rail.
So the president will be looking for somebody who will continue to carry out his vision for infrastructure, for transportation, for livable and sustainable communities, for making sure that people have lots of transportation alternatives — and the jobs that are created as a result of it.
TS: A couple of years ago, with the reauthorization, you did have the very difficult job of selling this very ambitious, very bold proposal of the president’s, but without a revenue stream attached to it, without being able to say, “Well, this is where the money’s going to come from.” And that made it a very hard sell in Congress. Is there anything that you would do differently if you were doing that process all over again?
RL: Well, look, we were following the lead of the president and our colleagues at the White House, and the idea that we would do something differently would mean that we were going against what people wanted us to do. And I think that when the president gets around to talking about infrastructure in a way that’s more than just an item on an agenda, I think he’ll talk about it in a bold way — in a way that reflects the idea that we need a multi-year transportation program, that we need to put the funding behind it if we’re really going to put people to work, if we’re really going to tackle the big infrastructure needs in America — if we’re really going to be number one in infrastructure again.
We are not number one in infrastructure! We are not number one in transportation! For the first time in the history of our country, we’re behind Asia, we’re behind other places in the world because they’ve made the investments and we haven’t.
So I think you’ll see a pretty bold vision from the president, bolder than in the first term.
TS: One of the very bold things that you did was stand on a tabletop and declare the equality of non-motorized transportation. Do you feel like that is an ethic that is deeply permeated in the department, or is that something that could leave with you? Or leave with President Obama?
RL: I think that the team of people that we have put together in the department, almost all of whom will be there after I’m gone, all of whom will support whoever the next secretary is, believe in the agenda that we have promoted, believe very strongly in alternative forms of transportation, promoting bike-share programs, promoting streetcars, promoting bus rapid transit, promoting light rail, promoting livable and sustainable communities, promoting alternative transportation.
I believe that this agenda will continue to be carried out by a very, very talented group of people that we put together over the last four years that will support the president’s vision and support the vision that DOT is not just about building roads and bridges. It’s about a lot of other opportunities for transportation for people. And I think people should not worry about that.
TS: Many members of your party think that bike and pedestrian and livability improvements should be done and funded at the local level. You have made the case in the last four years that it is a federal priority. First of all, why do you think it should be a federal responsibility instead of local, and how do you communicate that to the Republican party?
DOT is not just about building roads and bridges.
RL: I think that local governments and local organizations simply do not have the resources. And I think people, fortunately, have not been dissuaded by public officials that have no vision. We have to continue to support those communities that want to implement many different forms of transportation, want to implement the idea that people want to live in livable and sustainable communities.
Some communities want to do streetcars, others want to do light rail, others want to do bus rapid transit, others want to just improve infrastructure. Our responsibility is to work with all those people, knowing that they don’t have the resources at the local level because of a lousy economy. We should take a part of our resources here in Washington and give opportunities to communities that really want to think outside the box when it comes to transportation.
That’s what this is about. This is about communities with a vision. Community leaders with a vision. And we have a responsibility to enable them to carry out that vision.
TS: McClatchy just did a series on state DOTs that are overspending on highway expansion to the extent that they have nothing left for maintenance. How do you think the priorities got to where they are now, and what can be done to refocus them?
RL: Part of it is having the resources to fund the kind of opportunities that we want to promote. We’ve relied for years and years and years — for decades — on the highway trust fund to fund everything. And that’s a very limited resource now because people are driving less and driving more fuel-efficient cars. And people are also using alternative forms of transportation, other than gasoline-powered automobiles.
So I think everybody who has a stake in transportation needs to think outside the box on how are we going to fund all the things that we need to do. And I think we need to be leaders on that too, here in Washington. And I think you’ll see the president lead on that.
Obviously, the president has been focused on immigration, been focused on gun control, been focused on getting his cabinet in place, been focused in the last week or so on the State of the Union. But when the president gets focused on infrastructure and transportation, I think you’ll see a bold vision.
Not just a bold vision about what needs to be done — there’s no debate about what needs to be done in America. Everyone knows what needs to be done. The debate is going to be about how we pay for it.
TS: Right. How do we pay for it?
RL: Rather than me speculating on that, I’m going to leave it to others to figure that out.
TS: Not speculating – what do you believe is the right way?
RL: It doesn’t make any difference. I’m a lame duck. It’ll be up to the president and whoever sits in this chair to articulate that, and I’ll leave it to them.
Part Two of the interview explores Republicans that do (and some that do not) have a “vision” about transportation that includes multiple modes, and Part Three is about the future: high-speed rail, electric cars, and climate adaptation.