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Ray LaHood: “Sitting on the Sidelines Doesn’t Accomplish Anything”

What follows is the second installment of an exit interview I conducted with departing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Tuesday. In the first installment, he talked about what he's proudest of, why he decided to leave, and why it's important to fund bike/ped improvements with federal dollars. I also gave him one last chance to duck a question about how to increase revenues. We'll run the third part tomorrow.

Time is running out on LaHood's term as DOT secretary. Photo: Tanya Snyder

Tanya Snyder: Republicans believe that bicycle and pedestrian, and often transit, funding shouldn’t come out of the same protected fund as roads. Do you think that’s an ideological position or do you think that’s industry influence talking?

Ray LaHood: When it comes to transportation, we need to have people with a vision. People that understand that DOT is not just about roads and bridges anymore. It’s about a comprehensive view of transportation. It’s about many different alternatives. The people are way ahead of some of these politicians, and have been. It’ll be up to common, ordinary citizens to convince their leaders -- whether it be mayors or governors or members of Congress -- that a vision for transportation is not restricted to just roads and bridges. It has to be a wide, broad view of many alternatives.

Now, there are Republicans with a vision. [Gov.] Rick Snyder in Michigan accepted high-speed rail money to fix up the route between Detroit and Chicago. [California Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger was one of the first governors to accept high-speed rail money. So there are some Republicans that do have a vision about this. We’re going to find out whether any of them are in Congress or not.

But it’ll be up to the people to hold these elected officials’ feet to the fire when it comes to having a vision about transportation that’s more than just about roads and bridges.

TS: When you look at Congress, specifically the Republicans but really Congress in general, how is it different than 10 years ago, or 20 years ago when you started in Congress?

RL: For example, when I served on the Transportation Committee, we passed two [surface transportation] bills in a very bipartisan way. We passed two bills with 75 people on the committee, and everybody voted for it. And this was with a Republican majority! This was with Bud Shuster as the chair of the committee. This was a group of people that did have a vision about transportation.

Now, the resources were there also. We funded almost all of it out of the highway trust fund. It’s different now, because there are limited resources and people have a different view. But there’s still quite a bit of leadership, I think. Certainly there are people with a vision in the group that put together the transportation bill, plussing up the TIFIA program to allow for communities to do big projects was a big step forward.

TS: I wanted to ask about the story behind the TIGER program. How did it come together?

Where we have organizations that are creative and thinking outside the box, we should do all that we can to be helpful to them.

RL: It was a way to fund things out of the box and out of the ordinary. It was originally funded through the economic stimulus.

TS: Whose idea was it?

RL: I think it was probably somebody either on the president’s staff who helped put together the economic recovery or some staffers on Capitol Hill, to create a pot of money where you could do creative, innovative projects that couldn’t be funded in other programs.

But the important thing here is that even after that money was spent in the economic recovery, that program has continued because Congress has put it in the appropriations bill -- $500 million each year for the last three years. I give the Senate, primarily, the credit on this for having the vision to say, “We need a pot of money where we can think outside the box, where people in the communities can come directly to DOT." They don’t have to go through a governor. They can come directly with innovative, creative ideas for streetcars, for light rail, for bike-share, for walking and biking paths.

And TIGER has just been an enormous resource to do so many things, thinking outside of the box, for people that have the vision and don’t really have the resources but have good ideas.

TS: Has that been good for the department, to have a pot of money that they control that doesn’t go through the states?

RL: Absolutely. Where it’s not designated to a road or a bridge; where we can use our creative juices, where we can work with stakeholders around the country -- people who know that a walking and biking path is so essential to creating the kind of community that people want to live in, or a streetcar line or a light rail line that cant be funded under other programs.

TS: Do you have some favorite TIGER projects that you feel like you’ll always look back and say, “This is why this is an important program”?

RL: I think the streetcar projects. I think it really helped us jumpstart the streetcar projects. I think the walking and biking paths, where I’ve gone out -- there’s one near Napa in California where we gave over $2 million.

But I’ve inaugurated a lot of streetcar projects and there’s just a lot of enthusiasm around these. And I think one of the first projects we did, in Kansas City, Missouri -- $40 million, where they took a 150-block area; it was a blighted area and they took the $40 million and they built streetscape and curbs and sidewalks and walking and biking paths, and then HUD came in with affordable housing. Re-created an entire neighborhood. That could not have been done without the collaboration bet HUD, EPA and DOT -- and the TIGER program to fund it.

TS: With TIGER -- you mentioned thinking outside the box -- the funding breakdown for TIGER has been very different from the kind of modal breakdown that happens with formula funds. It’s about 32 percent for roads, 30 percent for transit, 20 percent for rail, 4 percent for bike/ped. Is that the kind of funding split that you would like to see at a larger level, by the federal government, by the states, through the highway trust fund? Is that a healthier mix?

Sitting on the sidelines doesn’t accomplish anything.

RL: I think here needs to be equity in the way that we fund transportation. And we get that equity by listening to the stakeholders in the country and hearing what the priorities are in communities and then developing a strategy for giving them the resources to do what they want to do.

There’s a project that we’ll be announcing, probably in the next month or so in Chicago, where they’ve applied for a TIFIA loan. They’re going to really capture the essence of the Chicago River, which has never been done. It’s going to be a riverwalk! And it’s going to really capture the great natural resource of the Chicago River and connect Chicago. And that couldn’t have been done without the TIFIA program.

The answer is that we need to establish priorities with communities, with states, and then share the resources that we have so there is equity.

TS: You mentioned the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. That’s been defunded in the last couple cycles. Do you feel like it’s really been hobbled by the fact that the funding has been cut off, or does it continue without it?

RL: My view is we need to fund creative, innovative approaches to transportation, and we need to find creative ways to help people live out their dreams and carry out their dreams. Where we have organizations that are creative and thinking outside the box, we should do all that we can to be helpful to them.

TS: What has the partnership meant for the department, and for you as secretary?

RL: I think a group like that is a very visionary group. They think outside the box. They think in a very creative way about transportation. And they’ve enabled us to help justify our agenda and justify what we try to do because of the work that they’ve done.

TS: I talked to [former Under Secretary for Policy] Roy Kienitz the other day about you, and he felt that one of the marks of your tenure has been getting involved with local processes when things are breaking down. You don’t just wait for them to get their act together and come to you with a final decision; when things aren’t going well you intervene. Is that something that’s worked? Is it something you think the next secretary should emulate?

RL: I’m not going to pretend to tell anybody what to do in this job. We’ve done what we thought was right. We’ve done what we thought was important. We’ve done the things that we thought needed to be done to make a difference. I think we’ve made a difference.

People tell me all the time that they can never remember when they could remember who the secretary of transportation was; they can never remember when they could remember, other than roads and bridges, what Transportation has ever done. And I think people now have a different view of the Department of Transportation.

I think my involvement in the Silver Line now means that people in downtown Washington will be able to get to Dulles Airport on a train. I think [of] my involvement in the O’Hare modernization, when it was falling apart, when we needed to continue to make progress on making sure that project moved forward. I think working with [Los Angeles] Mayor [Antonio] Villaraigosa on his 30/10 and with Sen. [Barbara] Boxer on that, thinking outside the box again, enabling people by giving them encouragement, by getting involved, by thinking outside the box and not just sitting on the sidelines. Sitting on the sidelines doesn’t accomplish anything.

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