A Transportation Secretary Who’s Hard to Believe In

On Monday, Obama announced his "green dream team." Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wasn’t there.

We’ve been calling around to Congressional staffers, advocates and insiders to get a better sense of what Obama’s appointment of Ray LaHood as transportation secretary means for those pushing for sustainable transport, smart growth, livable streets. While no one is giving up hope on the Obama administration a month before the inauguration, the general consensus is pretty clear. As one insider summed it up: "It’s a real read-it-and-weep moment."

The selection of a downstate Illinois Republican with close ties to highway lobby stalwart Caterpillar Inc. is being taken by many as a clear sign that progressive transportation policy is, for now, nowhere near the top of the Obama’s agenda.

"Obama still hasn’t made the transportation – land use – climate connection," Petra Todorovich, director of Regional Plan Association’s America 2050 program said. "It’s clear he’s thinking about these things in separate categories." For Todorovich and other advocates, the LaHood pick was the second shoe to drop this week. The first piece of bad news arrived on Monday when Obama trotted out his "green dream team," his appointments to key environmental, energy and climate posts, and the transportation secretary was nowhere to be found.

As President George W. Bush did before him, Obama has chosen to use the transportation secretary slot as a place to show bipartisanship. "This sends the message that the transportation secretary is a throw-away political appointment who doesn’t matter,’ said a city transportation official who, like others, asked to remain anonymous to preserve their relationship with the U.S. DOT. "This is the slot for the token Republican. It’s the bottom of the barrel. A bone you can throw."

Progressive transportation policy advocates are also concerned that LaHood will have trouble drawing good people to the agency. "In terms of attracting talent, no one I know is going to want to work for this guy," said a former Federal Transit Administration official. "He’s got a horrible environmental record, he’s bad on climate change and he’s Caterpillar’s bag man. Can we get a worse appointment?" Many feel that former F.A.A. chief Jane Garvey would have been the better choice.

For New Yorkers, the LaHood selection is reminiscent of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s choice in 2002 to retain Iris Weinshall as the city’s DOT Commissioner. Like LaHood, Weinshall had no real expertise or background in transportation policy (though, unlike LaHood, she did have actual administrative experience). Weinshall, who is married to Senator Chuck Schumer, was a political appointment and the results spoke for themselves. New York City transportation policy didn’t really start moving in a progressive direction until she left office and was replaced by someone with deep experience in transportation policy, Janette Sadik-Khan.

What does LaHood’s appointment mean for this year’s multi-hundred billion dollar transportation reauthorization? That will largely be up to Obama. "We need to radically change the way we think about transportation," said one Congressional staffer focused on raising more money for urban-oriented mass transit while reducing dependence on the gas tax. "LaHood is not a bold choice. He is not the transportation policy expert we were looking for. But if Obama empowers him to push a progressive agenda, that’s what we’ll be pushing in Congress."

Down in D.C. the advocates are still hopeful. Said one: "He’s not an ideologue and he’ll probably be taking direction from good people." Said another: This is "probably Obama’s weakest pick" but people with ties to LaHood "say he is potentially malleable." It ain’t much, but it’s something.

In a funny way, the bad news is good news for progressive transportation policy advocates. Their business will be booming in 2009.

25 thoughts on A Transportation Secretary Who’s Hard to Believe In

  1. How “potentially malleable” is he? Can we stretch him out and do stunts like Mr. Bill on Saturday Night Live?

  2. Regarding the senate-cronies thing, I’ve been wondering whether they’re Obama’s cronies or Biden’s. I refuse to lose hope till Obama has delivered his inaugural and lays out his plans for transportation.

  3. The idea that transportation policy must be rethought for cities is nonsense. Cities do not have transportation, they have spaces and the land that they integrate. A disintegrated transportation policy is exactly how we got sprawl; it was right out of the system of modernism of separation of uses. (Separate shops from business, separate recreation from housing, and separate transportation from everything else.)

    The best thing Obama could do to help cities would be to abolish the DOT and roll it into a Department of Cities.

    Here’s the full idea:

  4. “In terms of attracting talent, no one I know is going to want to work for this guy,” said a former Federal Transit Administration official.”

    No problem, they can save the hassle and just keep the entire Bush DOT. Any departing Bushies can be replaced by Caterpillar lobbyists.

  5. “Obama still hasn’t made the transportation – land use – climate connection,” Petra Todorovich, director of Regional Plan Association’s America 2050 program said. “It’s clear he’s thinking about these things in separate categories.”

    It annoys me how RPA and some like-minded planning folk speak as if planning thought is a stage of enlightenment that lesser beings have yet to attain. It’s implying that as people evolve, they eventually come to the same way of thinking as planners do – so that only after careful meditation they come to realize that the RPA way is the golden truth. Todorovich sounds like she’s from a cult.

    Even though I agree with the substance of what she says, public statements from respected members of the field should not be framed in the manner that Todorovich has in this article. The condescension and tone is disturbing. In acting in this manner, you would only shut people out, anger the people who disagree with you, and never have a meaningful dialogue to come up with constructive solutions.

    Planning history has taught us that planners have made mistakes, and that hindsight is 20/20. We should never be arrogant enough to say that there is only one way to solve a planning issue, and it would beneficial for us to approach problems with some humility.

    With or without LaHood as the Secretary of Transportation, the type of tone that Todorovich has expressed in discussing future transportation matters is not going to get us anywhere.

  6. “Obama still hasn’t made the transportation – land use – climate connection,” Petra Todorovich, director of Regional Plan Association’s America 2050 program said. “It’s clear he’s thinking about these things in separate categories.”

    I think this is spot on. Obama’s advisors and perhaps some of the big enviros are missing a huge piece of the climate puzzle. And this certainly isn’t just about climate change; its about public health and quality of life. Biofuels and electric cars are not long-term solutions.

    This week, it seems our first urban president in generations is striving to be the exurban president.

  7. Cap n’ Transit – It was more about the condescending tone of the statement that I have an issue with, rather than its substance.
    The statement could have been framed in numerous ways without its condescension, while still reinforcing the linkages between transportation, land use, and climate change.

    LaHood is an unfortunate selection for DOT secretary, and it does imply that the Obama administration does not strongly believe in the connection between transportation and climate change. I think that by choosing not to announce the DOT position along with the Energy Secretary and EPA Administrator, Obama gives us a glimpse towards his views on transportation, reinforced by who he ultimately decided to nominate.

  8. RPA gets credit for sharing their disappointment on the record instead of making up a bunch of bullshit about how the guy is a moderate, blank slate or “malleable” or bike hero because he earmarked some rail trails. (Incidentally, his statement on the house floor in support of rail trails is moronic.)

    The green transportation groups need a gutsy, “bad cop” group which is not afraid to speak truth to power like the gay lobby or any of a dozen right wing interest groups. Bet you not one enviro or transpo reform group issued a statement expressing their profound disappointment in the LaHood pick. Combined with Obama’s Interior and Ag appointments, you have to seriously wonder if this administration has any interest in dealing with climate change.

  9. I didn’t have a lot of high hopes on real righteous policy with Obama anyway and this is simply living up to my expectations. This is more about political power and its administration than it is about good policy. There are a million good ideas, what it takes is political will and organization applied over a long period of time to make them happen. Granted some of that is compressed because of the economic meltdown but I think this is more of an indication that he is taking the enviros for granted politically than anything else. That will be the case with the rest of his base as well. He knows he has our vote anyway so he might as well court the disaffected Republican moderates and the Reagan Democrats.

  10. How is Caterpillar a “stalwart” of the highway lobby? I know they’re a member of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, but LaHood only received a 66 percent approval rating from them. What am I missing?

  11. who the f is obama trying to reach out to and appease with these selections? invocations, transportations. i mean, i just want to be a gay bicycle commuter/public transportation rider. can we have a revote?

  12. I realize I may be reaching here, but maybe Obama’s policy is progressive in the real sense…Trying to find a way to transition, incrementally, economically, and just plain mentally, from a auto-dependent infrastructure to one that is more diverse and integrated. I think it is necessary to not forget the average guy, everyone from highway engineers and construction laborers who have a learning curve ahead of them. They need to transition with us. Caterpillars will be needed, after all, to help create the bridges and tunnels for high speed rail networks. There is a need for all of us to adopt Obama style pragmatism to the way we change a country. We don’t live in a world where fairies turn pumpkins into urban villages overnight…potemkin villages maybe, but not smart growth.

  13. Eric, that you can look at this development in a positive light for transit indicates to me that you’ve given up your reason for Obama’s cult of personality.

    It’s quite simple. Obama doesn’t care about transit.

  14. My hope is that Obama intends to transform the way we look at transportation. LaHood is just a guy that will do what he is told and will be good at gaining support in Congress.

  15. How do we reach out to Obama and educate him and LaHood on these issues?

    For starters we’ve got to get progressives all on the same page– I knew a lot of “left leaning” folks who though congestion pricing was horrible, hated the idea of raising the gas tax, thought building more roads would decrease traffic… and other assorted nonsense.

    I think we need to get more people on our side only then will the pols listen.

  16. My hope is that Obama intends to transform the way we look at transportation. LaHood is just a guy that will do what he is told and will be good at gaining support in Congress.

    Keep dreaming. I’m not expecting much at this point… did he pick the Sec. of Urban Affairs yet?

  17. In these times, the Transpo secretary should’ve been up there as part of the green team. Some are saying Obama hasn’t made that connection yet. But have enviornmentalists made the connection? Not really. There’s a few signs of big enviro groups supporting smart growth, but on the national stage they are not out there banging the table about compact development, biking and walking, transit and reducing vehicle miles traveled. I’m starting to get tired of environmentalists talk about climate change – many of them don’t really get any argument outside of making more fuel efficient cars.

    I putting my hopes in James Oberstar, not the Obama administration. Put Oberstar in the driver’s seat, let Lahood be the moderate secretary and Obama the president that lets it happen.

  18. I’m starting to get tired of environmentalists talk about climate change – many of them don’t really get any argument outside of making more fuel efficient cars.

    I could not agree more– people talk about how dire things are then suggest improvements that will only have a small impact. It’s all about cities.

  19. I read the transcript of Obama and LaHood’s speeches at the announcement today. (

    It sounds to me like LaHood will be a mainstream-Washington sort of guy who will be effective at spending money and priming the pumps of transportation *industry*. He is not a policy guy – he plans to let states and regions decide what is best for themselves, not propose top-down ideas about what 21st transportation policy should look like or how it should be tied in to the environment or energy policy. Those thoughts were conspicuously absent from today’s press conference (yet again).

    So, what that means is unless the states are already asking for money for lots of bike lanes and compact development and already oppposed to highway expansions, then we’re screwed. Obama could have picked someone who would have revolutionized transportation spending at the federal level, but he went the other way entirely, and I don’t know that Obama really is up to speed on any of this stuff to begin with.

    Message to PEBHO: Put down your Doris Kearns Goodwin books and start reading some decent blogs, and get out of your SUV and ride the DC Metro every now and then.

  20. “How do we reach out to Obama and educate him and LaHood on these issues?” It is true that Obama and the environmentalists don’t seem to see the tie between transportation and climate change — despite the fact that the US CO2 pie chart gives a hefty 33% to transportation. I’m thinking that infiltrating the environmental groups is important. I too feel like they constantly miss the connection, expecting fuel efficient and alternative cars to solve all our problems.

    Right at this moment in time, I think posting comments to articles in the mainstream media — that are hopefully being read by Obama transition team, and LaHood — that tie transportation with energy and climate change should have some impact.

    In the long run, we have to keep beating this drum.

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