LaHood Heads Home for a Break and to “Hope the Phone Rings”

Outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said a few parting words yesterday at the National Press Club, just an hour before his successor, Anthony Foxx, was confirmed by the full Senate. The theme of LaHood’s prepared remarks was bipartisanship, but he admits he’s not seeing enough of it these days in Washington.

Ray LaHood says goodbye. Photo: Tanya Snyder

That could doom prospects for a long-term transportation bill to follow up MAP-21 when it expires at the end of the next fiscal year.

“I do think the prospects are pretty good in the Senate right now,” LaHood said, drawing optimism from what he called a “healthy” debate on immigration in the upper chamber. But then he took a look at the House, where the farm bill recently fell apart, and said transportation could meet the same fate. “I think the prospects in the House are very dim right now.”

At the same time, he said, a new, long-term bill is absolutely the most pressing issue facing the transportation sector. “America is one big pothole right now,” he said.

LaHood touted the administration’s achievements with the stimulus, pouring $48 billion into infrastructure and creating 65,000 jobs. And the cash-for-clunkers program, he said, persuaded Americans to buy 700,000 cars in the span of 30 days. When LaHood said later, “No administration has done more for the American car manufacturer than this administration,” he wasn’t kidding.

That line came in response to a question from Streetsblog about the decline in miles driven over the past few years. Did LaHood think it was a lasting trend, and if so, how should it affect U.S. DOT’s planning and forecasting? “That’s a question for somebody who’s very intellectual and very smart,” he said. “I haven’t given much thought to that. I don’t know the answer to that.” And then he started touting the gifts the administration has given to carmakers.

“The kind of vehicles that people drive, I believe, will change dramatically,” he said. With CAFE standards coming into effect, he thinks every family in America will have a hybrid. “Gasoline prices aren’t going down! They’re not going down.”

So he envisions an America with different cars but not fewer cars? “I don’t know about fewer cars,” he said. “It seems like they’re selling a heck of a lot of cars these days.”

They’re selling a lot of bikes too, though! (I thought I’d give him a chance to toot his own horn about all he’s done for non-motorized modes of transportation, which advocates agree is more than any previous secretary ever had.) “This is the year of bike-share!” he announced, listing the cities where he’s helped launch new systems.

LaHood also oversaw an awful lot of standard DOT fare. He said his department repaired or replaced over 20,000 bridges and “improved” over 350,000 miles of US roads — much of that being maintenance, though a lot was road expansion, too. But the real signature work of the administration has been the push for high-speed rail. And despite the mixed success that project has had, LaHood says he has no regrets.

“I only know one person in Florida that wasn’t for high-speed rail,” he said. “I only met one person in Wisconsin and Ohio that didn’t want high-speed rail. These are people without a transportation vision.”

LaHood insists that California high-speed rail will be operational within 10 years and that the work on a national system will move forward. “High-speed rail is coming to America,” he thundered. “We’re not going back.”

“We built the interstate system. We built bridges,” he said. “What we’re going to do for the next generation is high-speed rail.”

Along with that, of course, is a renewed investment in urban transit, including streetcars, which are now being manufactured in the United States again. “America is in the streetcar business,” he said. Bus rapid transit, light rail, bike and pedestrian investments also have flourished under his leadership at DOT.

Streetsblog also gave the departing secretary a chance to vent some frustration about the difficult position he was often put in, trying to sell a deficit-hawk Congress on robust transportation plans that had no revenue stream attached to them. Did he think those ambitious plans might have more success with the legislative branch in the future if the president displayed more leadership on a funding solution?

LaHood answered that once the president gets through the climate initiative, immigration reform, gun legislation, he’ll get right to work on infrastructure. And whatever he does, it’ll be bold. On funding, specifically? “I think it’ll be a bold vision.”

He wouldn’t go on record supporting a switch to a vehicle-miles-traveled fee — something he got into trouble for early on — but made it clear that the federal government has a strong role to play in funding infrastructure. “States don’t have the ability to raise the kind of money that’s needed to keep their roads and bridges and transit in a state of good repair,” he said. “That has to be a national priority.”

Finally, LaHood said he was convinced that his mission to curb distracted driving has been institutionalized as a top priority at U.S. DOT. He urged all 50 states to pass distracted driving laws and said Congress should, too, though he insisted on staying vague on what kind of law he’d support at the national level. “Congress knows what to do,” he said. “They’ll do it.” He wouldn’t take a position on lowering the blood-alcohol standard for drunk driving to .05 or installing ignition interlocks in cars, either.

The big question for a retiring public servant is always: What will you do next? He said more than he had previously, but still not much. He’d like to serve on some non-profit boards, perhaps for organizations with a safety mission. “The answer is, I have no plans,” he said. “I’m going to take July and August, and hope the phone rings and see who’s on the other end, and in the fall decide what the next chapter is.” He said he’ll split his time between Washington and Peoria and that we’ll be hearing from him again.

  • Alex Geyer

    I’m going to miss Secretary LaHood. He did a great job and managed to get a lot done despite working with a Congress hell bent on doing nothing. And his complete candor was very often hilarious. Secretary Foxx has some big shoes to fill. Here’s hoping he’s up to the task.

  • Anonymous

    It seems that Secretary LaHood did a lot more for bikes, pedestrians, and transit than any other Transportation Secretary I can recall. We gave him a rough time over the greenfield highway on his Fastlane blog, but he was also applauded for being seen saying and doing things – including getting on and riding – in support of biking and walking.

    I think he’ll be missed, though he’s leaving USDOT with a lot of work to be done. The good thing is that he started the ship turning . . . a very tough thing to do in what is essentially a highway-oriented agency, as evidenced by Congress’ paltry financial commitment to transit and alternative transportation.

  • John Dough

    I’m going to miss LaHood like a dog misses fleas. He squandered more money per hour, on projects Americans have no hope of ever seeing a return on, than any SecDOT in history. High speed rail is the poster child for “Cash for Clunkers”!

    He’s not even a good politician, for crying out loud. Somebody ought to tell him Gov. Walker in Wisconcin was elected on a PLATFORM THAT PROMISED HE WOULD STOP HSR.

    Good riddance.

  • Joe R.

    Wisconsin and other states might have been more receptive to HSR if we didn’t disguise what is essentially 90 to 110 mph conventional rail (pulled by diesel locomotives, no less) as HSR. The American public would be all over the electrified, 200 mph variety of HSR which exists in just about every other developed country. I can understand the lack of enthusiasm though for what essentially amounts to a regular Amtrak train. Just the fact it’s going maybe 10 to 30 mph faster than the usual 79 mph doesn’t make it HSR.

    That said, we might actually have a significant amount of 160 mph running in the Northeast Corridor once we upgrade the catenery. This is certainly HSR even by world standards. And then we have what is being built in California, if it ever gets finished. I feel all we need is one true HSR to serve as a demo, and every state will want one.

  • John Dough

    Every state will want one only as long as there are corrupt politicians at the federal level who are willing to spend money we don’t have. As soon as the states have to come up with their own money, they will change their minds. There will never be enough economic return to justify spending good money on HSR. If it made sense, it wouldn’t be such an uphill battle.

  • Joe R.

    If built where it makes sense, HSR can revolutionize travel in the US by making trips under about 500 miles faster than plane. Without often lengthy trips to airports, plus check-in delays, HSR handily beats air travel on many trips. It beats road travel all the time. We just need to build it where there are enough potential users to justify it.

    One of the reasons HSR is often an uphill political battle is because the airlines and auto companies view it as competition. To some extent that’s true, but with fewer people driving I think HSR will be used mostly by people who wouldn’t have driven in the first place. As for flying, airlines actually should want to get out of the short-haul business because those flights are a lot less profitable than long haul flights. Short haul flights spend most of their time climbing or descending, not economically cruising at high altitudes.

  • John Dough

    Ha!

    “If built where it makes sense….” …narrows it down to Japan and China. Even there, it’s a stretch.

    “…build it where there are enough potential users to justify it”? In USA, that would be nowhere.

    “…airlines actually should want to get out of the short-haul business because those flights are a lot less profitable than long haul flights.” Stupid airlines! You’d think somebody was forcing them to lose money. Wait. That’s Amtrak.

    “Short haul flights spend most of their time climbing or descending”? More like they spend more of their time making money. Have you seen what they charge for those flights?!

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