A Publication of WTVP

For 14 years, Ray LaHood served the 18th Congressional District of Illinois in the United States House of Representatives.
Upon his retirement, he was appointed by President Barack Obama to head
the U.S. Department of Transportation. iBi spoke with Secretary LaHood
on February 21st, 2009, several days prior to the president’s address
to a joint session of Congress.

How does it feel to be a Cabinet member in the opposition party?
I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to serve on the Obama team. I think it fulfills the commitment that the president made to include people from the Republican Party. Over the years, I worked with then-Senator Obama on a lot of transportation issues for Illinois, and we got to be friends. Then I developed a friendship with his now-chief of staff, former Congressman Rahm Emanuel. I think it’s an opportunity to be a part of a very historic administration, the first African American elected to the White House, and to face some very significant challenges, not only in transportation, but with the economy and in our country as a whole.

So it’s been a tremendous opportunity, and I am thrilled to be a part of President Obama’s team. They have really incorporated me into their meetings and their strategy for getting the economy moving again, and obviously, the stimulus bill includes an enormous amount of money to help jumpstart the economy and put people to work, so we’re right at the forefront with the administration as a part of their team, to get the economy moving.

Describe your first few weeks in office.
Well, the Cabinet is not really complete yet; there are several positions that haven’t been filled. We’ll have our first Cabinet meeting next week prior to the launch of the budget. The President will send a budget to Congress, and then he will give a State of the Union address next week.

I’ve spent a lot of time working with the professionals at DOT, learning a lot about the issues that face the department, and it’s been kind of like drinking from a fire hose. I thought I knew a lot about transportation, but there are any number of issues, plus we have over 100 positions to fill. We have a number of different modal agencies—highway administration, rail administration, transit administration—and we need to find a person to run these agencies, and we need to find people to work in those agencies too.

My learning curve has been working with these folks at the DOT, and of course, we have been thrown into this stimulus, with about 40 billion dollars to get out the door quickly in order to put people to work. It’s been a steep learning curve, but there have been a lot of professional people who have helped me.

How many employees are in the DOT?
There are 60,000 employees at DOT. Half of those are at the FAA, under DOT. Many of those are controllers that work around the country in airports and so forth. It’s a very large department with many responsibilities—not just for highways, but for airports, transit, and safety, and for the trucking industry. So we have a lot of responsibilities.

What were some of the key pieces in terms of transportation infrastructure in the stimulus bill? Were you happy with the portion allocated for that spending?

I think that, given the fact that we have 120 days to get the money out the door and about 18 months to spend it, we ended up with between 40 and 50 billion dollars. About 27 billion for highways, which will go to the states to fund projects where they have not had the money. There’s about 12 billion for transit. That will go to cities and urban areas that have transit systems where they want to build a multi-modal facility, or to buy buses or new equipment. There’s about a billion dollars for airports, which will fund runways and perhaps facilities as well.

Some other money will go to a few other areas, but the lion’s share is to go out to the states to continue projects that have had to stop for lack of funding, to start new projects that have been sitting on the shelf, and to really work with the transit districts and see that they have the funds they need to keep going.

Our staff has been working with the DOT secretaries—we invited all of them to Washington a week ago—and they brought important projects. There’s also 1.5 billion dollars for discretionary money that can be used by the secretary to fund projects that perhaps cannot be funded in these other areas, such as port or railway projects, either light rail or some other rail project.

Also, there’s eight billion dollars for high-speed rail. One of the biggest initiatives for the Obama Administration is to launch a high-speed rail program in America. There are at least six places in the country where high-speed rail is ready to be launched. California has done all of their studies and has a corridor identified, and I think you will see the president making some announcements soon, to make that a part of his transportation legacy to develop a high-speed rail system in America. There are opportunities in California, Chicago, Florida and along the Northeast Corridor. When you put all that money together, we end up with about 40 to 50 billion dollars.

Are there strings attached to this money for the states, matching funds or otherwise?
No matching funds are required. That’s good news for the states, because, for example, in Illinois, we have not been able to move ahead with some projects because we don’t have the money to match the funds. We have very strict guidelines set by Congress to get the money out the door in 120 days and will be working with highway administrators and secretaries of transportation to identify projects that have stopped or are new, with transit districts on projects where they want to build a facility or add new buses, and with port authorities on perhaps using the discretionary money for some projects. We think we will be able to identify some very significant projects, whether transit, highway, airports or high-speed rail, and really get the money out the door to get people to work.

Do you think the short-term need to move on “shovel-ready” projects has had a negative impact on long-term vision?
Not really, because as soon as we finish getting the money out the door, we’re going to be working with Congress on reauthorizing the highway bill, which has to be done pretty quickly. Congress will be working with the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee almost immediately, as soon as we get the money out the door and can be sure it is being spent correctly. We’re going to jumpstart the economy with the stimulus money and move right into the reauthorization.

The other important thing is the website, Anyone can click and see where the money is being spent and how many jobs are being provided. I was at a meeting with the president and 50 mayors from across the country, and one thing the president emphasized was that this money has to be spent correctly. No earmarks, no boondoggles, no handing the contract to one of your relatives, and he emphasized the website as well. We have been feeding it information about grants we’ve awarded, projects that we’re funding, the number of people going to work, and how that money is being spent. It’s the most transparency that I can remember on any bill. Any taxpayer can take advantage of that information.

Can you give us a preview of what we might see with the reauthorization bill? Do you expect to see greater support among Republicans for a pure transportation bill?

I think so. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has been very bipartisan over the years—they’ve worked very well together. It’s one of the biggest committees in the House; I think there are 78 members. I think you will see a bill coming out of that committee that incorporates what both Democrats and Republicans see as the need for infrastructure in our country over the next five years. That will include roads, bridges, rail and light rail.

One thing that we will be emphasizing from our end is called “Livable Communities.” It’s a program where we will set aside money for communities that want to go to a streetcar system or light rail, so that you can have opportunities for people to walk or ride bikes, and provide the amenities that people traditionally haven’t really thought of. In transportation bills, we’ve thought of concrete and roads and trains, but the livable community is something that people have talked to me about, and I believe this is the future—the idea of drawing people back to communities. There’s the idea that you don’t have to have an automobile, you can use mass transit, light rail or streetcars, and you can provide the amenities that let people really want to live in those communities.

I think the other important thing about the reauthorization bill is the idea that there simply isn’t enough money in the highway trust fund, which is the money collected at the gas pump, to fund all the things that everyone wants to do. We need to think outside the box, and people are talking about an opportunity for bonding and a highway investment bank. The idea of tolling new roads or bridges—so if you want to build a new road, perhaps you need to think about tolling it, which provides the money to build it.

The highway trust fund is an antiquated form of funding. It was great for building our interstate system, but with the reduction of people driving and the gas receipts coming into the federal treasury, the highway trust fund is not going to have the resources. Last year Congress had to appropriate eight billion dollars just to plus-up the trust fund because the money wasn’t there to sustain roads and bridges. And this administration does not want to raise taxes—they have made that very clear. So we have to think out of the box about how to raise the funds to meet the infrastructure needs in our country. There’s a lot of innovative thinking going on with that.

We hope to provide new opportunities through the bill for livable communities and high-speed rail. The eight billion dollars really jumpstarts the opportunity to get that going in a couple places in the country, but we know it takes an enormous amount of money, and the president is committed to doing that.

Do you see your role as throwing as many possible ideas out there and seeing what sticks?
I really do think we need to think outside the box. People who travel to Europe or Japan come back talking about the great high-speed rail they rode on. We don’t have that in America. Amtrak has improved its service and has more ridership now than ever, but true high-speed rail doesn’t exist in America. People have experimented with livable communities in places like Portland, Oregon, but it really hasn’t taken hold, and until the federal government sets a standard for livable communities and puts resources into it, it won’t really happen.

We have to be the leaders of these things at DOT. We know there’s some traditional things that will have to continue—we must continue to maintain the interstate system. It’s a state-of-the-art system, and a model for the world, really, but we have to do some of these other things like light rail and figure out how to fund them.

The other thing I have really emphasized at the department is safety. In every mode, safety has to be our number-one priority, whether its air transportation, transit or automobiles. That’s something that I really should have started off with, because I’ve talked about it a lot. When people get on a plane, they need to know they will get there safely, or if they get on a train or bus or ride the metro, safety has to be uppermost in our minds.

What are your thoughts on a national infrastructure bank?
I think it’s something that we have to think outside the box on, and consider it as a way to fund our infrastructure needs. That’s one thing; tolling is another.

What about congestion fees?
There have been a few experimental programs. New York couldn’t really get their act together, and now we are trying to get Chicago to look at congestion fees, where you try and establish a behavior change in the way that people come into these urbanized areas. That is an experimental pilot program going on within the department right now. I think there are four or five of these ideas that we just need to talk about. I know sometimes they are controversial, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about them.

President Bush signed the Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act, which doubled federal funding for Amtrak over five years and authorized money to create high-speed passenger rail corridors across the Midwest. I believe you voted for that. What is its current status? Are we ready to go on high-speed rail?
There are a couple of places—California is ready to go and has actually appropriated a significant amount of dollars to go from San Francisco to L.A. and down to Sacramento, so that corridor is well-positioned, and I think you will see some announcements on that soon. There are a few corridors in Florida, one between Chicago and St. Louis, and one starting in Wisconsin and through Chicago and over to Ohio. High-speed rail is a top priority of President Obama, and he really wants this to be one of his legacies, something he really jumpstarts. Some of this has to be in partnership with the states, and like I said, in California they have come up with an enormous amount of money to help with whatever we can provide. This is not just a slogan, but something the president wants to do.

The study to return Amtrak service to Peoria is due soon. Perhaps this was taken out of context, but you were quoted last year as being skeptical of such a plan. Are you still?

In the position I am in now, I need to keep an open mind. I want to look at the results of the study and make a judgment, along with the people in the community, about what direction we should be taking, and I need to allow for some flexibility.

Chicago seems to be an ideal hub for high-speed rail.
It is one of the proposals, and there are some studies out there for a high-speed rail-line between Chicago and St. Louis. I think you will see railroad people in Illinois dust off those studies with the availability of some money and try to update them, and see if that’s a possibility for consideration.

You’ve talked a lot about “livable communities.” It seems like long-term urban planning is becoming more of a priority. Do we need to rethink the urban sprawl that’s taken place over the past 30 years, and commit to higher-density solutions in cities?

I think that’s really one of things we are talking about in terms of making livable communities a priority in the transportation bill. In some urbanized areas, regentrification is taking place, but only with the idea that people are able to use mass transit or light rail, if they want to, for example, get from downtown Chicago out to the airport or the suburbs. It has to be convenient and cost-effective. If you go to a place like Portland, where they have gotten into streetcars again as a way of getting around, and think of all the people who are not even going to be using their cars, all of that is very environmentally appealing to people as well.

In a midsized city like Peoria, where there aren’t major traffic jams, how do you incentivize the use of public transportation? Is it possible in a city like Peoria, or are people just not going to ditch their cars?
I think it’s more difficult in communities like Peoria, Rockford or the Quad Cities, where people are so accustomed to getting in their cars and driving to wherever they are going, and there isn’t the same kind of congestion. I do think the mass transit district has the opportunity to provide incentives, like CityLink does for events that take place in downtown Peoria. They can say to people: get on the bus, go to a Bradley game or the symphony, go to these events and avoid the kind of congestion you would normally find. I think it will take some innovative approaches, and people in the communities—elected leaders and people who run these modes—will have to come up with ways to get people out of their cars and onto different kinds of transportation.

What are your thoughts on “smart” technologies to make roads and bridges more intelligent?
It is something that the department has done on an experimental basis, and I think you’ll see in the reauthorization, lots of debate and discussion about that. The technology is available now, but it is not inexpensive. As we get into the 21st century here, we need to really think again, we’ve developed an interstate system, but how do we go beyond that to continue the progress we’ve made? Some of these technologies allow for safer and smarter ways of doing things, so I think you’ll see some of that in the reauthorization.

What role are you playing in the restructuring of the Big Three automakers and the problems they are going through right now?
I am a member of the president’s task force and I was with him when he signed the executive order that set new CAFE standards for automobile manufacturers that have to be implemented by 2011. Our department actually wrote the guidelines, and that will go out the door of DOT on April 1st to the car manufacturers, and they will have to meet a much higher standard by 2011 for mileage and CAFE standards. I think this administration is going to work with the automobile manufacturers to do what we can to be helpful to them, but they have to be helpful to themselves too, and I think they are trying to do that.

Does that mean more electric hybrids?
Exactly. When I visited the car show in Washington along with the EPA administrator, we were shown by American car manufacturers—particularly GM—a battery-driven automobile that they believe will be available by 2011. You plug it into your garage, and it’s totally battery-operated. As a member of the task force, I will be working with them on the belief that we need to have a strong automobile manufacturing capability in this country—it’s been the backbone of America. We need to find ways, working with the automobile manufacturers, making sure they can stay in business and produce cars that people want to buy, produce high-mileage cars, and produce a combination of battery-engineered automobiles and ones that have standards that are not polluting the environment.

What about air-traffic control, what’s in the works there?
The FAA is a very important part of the Department of Transportation. There are three things that I think are my goals. First, find the very best FAA administrator, and I have recommended a name to the president, someone who really has the qualifications to run the department.

Secondly, there has been a running dispute between the controllers and the FAA, and I have met with the controllers and their union, the NATCA, and made a commitment to them that we will get this dispute behind us, so the controllers feel that they are being well-paid, well-compensated, work rules, and all of that.

Number three, getting Next Generation technology is very important. Some of these tracons around the country have very antiquated equipment. We need to be working on a big-picture plan so that everybody knows that by 2018, here’s what the tracons are going to look like and the kind of equipment they are going to have, here’s what the airplanes are going to be equipped with—but then also have a smaller goal of five to seven years—here’s our first step of getting to the big picture, being able to say to Congress what it will cost. Getting to Next Generation is absolutely critical for the safety of those who are in airplanes, for the flying public and the controllers and airlines to have the best equipment. There’s a really strong commitment to do it—we just have to know what the plan is and what it’s going to cost, and then start moving forward.

As a former congressman, what unique perspective do you bring to the table in terms of shepherding bills through Congress?
As somebody who worked for two congressmen for 17 years and served in Congress for 14 years, I think I know how to get legislation passed, and I have a relationship with a number of members with whom I have worked over a long period of time. I believe I can really be helpful in terms of carrying on the president’s agenda for Next Generation, reauthorization of the highway bill, implementing the stimulus bill. These relationships allow me to work with members of Congress of both parties to get things done. The fact that my nomination was voted on unanimously in committee and by the Senate speaks to my ability to work well with members of both parties.

The president has a very strong agenda on transportation, and he has told me that getting Next Generation at the FAA is important, that high-speed rail and reauthorization of the highway bill are important, and finding new ways to fund our projects is important. We have a lot of big challenges ahead, but I think the experience and relationships that I have will allow me to work very well with the committees as we work through some of these big issues that we need to get through Congress.

Right now, our number-one priority is jobs. How can infrastructure be a driver, not just for short-term, shovel-ready projects but sustainable, long-term job training?
I think the stimulus will help us jumpstart our ability to get people to work. I think you will see people working this spring, summer and fall on roads and bridges. You will see people working on transit projects. Then we will be smack in the middle of reauthorizing the highway bill, which hopefully we can get passed by the end of the year. So as we get into the stimulus projects, and as we finish those over the next year or two, we will follow up with the projects that will be in the reauthorized highway bill. We will be into projects that will help with transit and developing our Livable Communities program and high-speed rail, so I believe this will not only begin to initiate people going to work, but they will be able to continue as a result of Congress passing an FAA reauthorization, implementing Amtrak and implementing a highway reauthorization bill.

I think it would be a good follow-up for you and me to sit down a year from now and talk…to see if the stimulus bill worked, if we were able to get an FAA bill through and settle the contract with the controllers, get to NextGen, and begin to implement a highway bill. That’s going to be the big benchmark for all of us at DOT, to see where we are a year from now and how all of this worked. iBi