Thursday, December 18, 2008

LaHood Tapped as DOT Head

It's official. We finally have a nominee for Secretary of Transportation. Unfortunately, the potential future leader of the nation's transportation program is a relative unknown in transportation circles. 

The nominee is Ray LaHood, a congressman from rural Southern Illinois. He has represented Illinois' 18th District since 1995 in the United States House of Representatives. Representative LaHood is a moderate Republican whose record on transportation seems to be neutral, although certainly more liberal than most Republicans. Unlike Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, whose sponsorship of transportation bills has dramatically improved the situation for transit, or James Oberstar, Congressman from Minnesota, whose support for bikes and transit is well known, Mr. LaHood has no transportation bills to his name. Other than the occasional break from the party to vote in support of Amtrak, LaHood hasn't focused on transportation. 

And I'm afraid Mr. LaHood's nomination does not bode well for America's transportation policy. By selecting someone with little transportation experience, Mr. Obama is indicating that he does not place much emphasis on the importance of transportation on his policy agenda. 

While I don't necessarily think that Mr. LaHood will have a negative impact on transportation policy, I don't think that he's the person who is going to bring change to Washington. I think it most likely that he will keep the status quo, at best--and right now, that is one of the last things we need in transport policy. 

As I've pointed out before, now is a pivotal moment for transportation in America. Among other things, we're up for reauthorization of the transportation bill in 2009. Additionally, transit ridership is higher than it's been for decades while VMT is dropping. The last thing we need right now is business as usual. I sincerely hope that Mr. LaHood will not bring that kind of leadership to DOT. 

Honestly, I am disappointed in Mr. Obama. He seems to be serious about energy independence and fighting climate change, but does not seem to see the transportation component of either of those goals as important. And while his platform called for transit-oriented planning, his policies seem to be headed toward the kind of road building of the sort catalyzed 5 decades of sprawl.

For now, I'm waiting to learn more about Ray LaHood. I truly hope that he will bring change to Washington, but I don't have too much hope anymore. With all Mr. Obama's talk of infrastructure spending, I'd hoped he was serious about rebuilding America. It seems I was mistaken.

Please make sure to see my other posts on the topic:


Dave Murphy said...

I tend to lean toward Ryan Avent and Beyond DC with regard to the stimulus, however, I am wholeheartedly disturbed by this appointment. The only blurbs I've seen on his appointment focus on fixing the airline industry, which is infuriating. A rep from a rural part of the Midwest with virtually no transportation bills to his credit, when people like Blumenauer, Oberstar, and Jeanette Sadik-Khan were the favorites. I get more disgusted with his cabinet with every pick (except Bill Richardson).

Paul Wilson said...

LaHood has been generally supportive of Amtrak in later years, but it wasn't always that way. Amtrak didn't win itself a lot of friends Downstate back in the 80s, when LaHood was House minority leader Bob Michel's chief of staff. Amtrak wanted to charge the state an outrageous amount of money to restore the "Peoria Rocket," a daily train between Peoria and Chicago. The Rocket service ended in the late 70s when the Rock Island was in its death throes. Rock Island didn't join Amtrak (the program was voluntary) and kept running its own passenger trains for a while, including the "Rocket."

Like I said, in later years, LaHood has generally been an Amtrak supporter and has supported the Midwest HSR initiative. That's about all I know about LaHood's views on transportation, and besides we don't know how much his personal views will impact on the running of the department, or whether he will have free rein to select deputies, etc. On the latter topic, I suspect he will be on a short leash.

Rob Pitingolo said...

Matt, I feel your pain. I had extremely high hopes for who could have potentially been Transportation Secretary (my favorite was Blumenauer); nevertheless, your past few posts expressing serious disappointment with Obama got me thinking.

In an ideal world, with the right appointments, government could wave a magic wand and satisfy all of us urbanists instantly. I'm afraid the political game simply isn't that simple. At first glance the LaHood appointment appears to be a slap in the face to anyone hoping for a much more progressive approach to transportation. However, there are still a few things worth considering:

First, we still don't know who is going to be the Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration. It could be possible for Obama to use that position, rather than Transportation Secretary, to push a more progressive urban agenda. Second, it is entirely possible that transportation issues, particularly urban transportation issues, could be handled out of an entirely different executive office. In that case it would make sense to appoint someone like LaHood to oversee the airlines, interstates, etc. and let someone with more urban experience handle the urban issues. Third, transit issues are often held up by stubborn congressional Republicans (people like McCain who think we ought to privatize Amtrak or people like Coburn who don’t think we should fund WMATA or other agencies with federal dollars); putting an extremist as the head of DOT probably won’t help to win these individuals over.

Finally, I think you have done good work on this blog, so please don’t take this the wrong way; but your last few posts have almost confirmed the perceived snobbish attitude that leads a lot of folks to distrust urbanists with otherwise good intentions. When I voted for Obama I knew that on transportation issues 1) they couldn’t be worse than under McCain and 2) that it was really a roll of the dice as to whether or not any real progress would get made during the first term. Campaign rhetoric is usually just that: rhetoric. Setting your expectations too high ultimately leads to the disappointments you now seem to be experiencing.