When Ray LaHood was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of Transportation on January 23, 2009, he could not have foreseen that the signature accomplishment of his first 100 days in office would likely involve spending $48 billion provided for transportation infrastructure projects through the Stimulus Package, including up to $30 billion for highways and bridges, $12 billion for transit, $3.1 billion for passenger rail and $3 billion for airports. But the effects of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), signed into law by President Barack Obama on Feb. 17—one heavy with both expenditures and expectations of economic recovery—may well determine his success as the 16th Secretary of Transportation.
This may be the first time in the history of our country that the Secretary of Transportation plays such a critical role in defining our economic future. Our transportation infrastructure is a key component in reestablishing the United State’s position as a global economic leader.
As Secretary, LaHood oversees the Department of Transportation and its key agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Surface Transportation Board (STB), among others. The agency has a $70 billion annual budget and nearly 60,000 employees.
His department is charged with shepherding through one of the largest federal transportation bills since the construction of the Interstate Highway System launched by the Eisenhower Administration, which revolutionized the way Americans traveled.
“My job is really to work with the president to develop good transportation policy. On a much larger scale, carrying out policy that’s developed between Congress and the administration,” LaHood said.
On April 13, I-94 in Kalamazoo, MI was awarded funding for the 2,000th transportation project under the Recovery Act. Now only two weeks later, the U.S. Department of Transportation has approved more than 2,500 projects for funding under ARRA. All states have received some stimulus funding.
“The most challenging part is making sure we spend this money correctly and really trying to do our part to help jump-start the economy,” LaHood said.
One of the more demanding aspects of his role will be working with Congress to develop a new Highway Trust Fund bill that provides a variety of revenue generating approaches to its funding. Gasoline taxes for nearly half a century have paid for the federal share of highway and bridge construction, but LaHood said they can no longer be counted on to raise enough money to keep the nation’s transportation system moving.
“Traditionally, we’ve used the Highway Trust Fund to take care of our roads and bridges, and we’re going to work with Congress on the next authorization bill, which Congress is already beginning to work on to find ways to supplement the Highway Trust Fund, which we know just is not capable of doing all the things we want to do in transportation, as well as keep up our roads and bridges, and so there are some alternatives that are being talked about,” LaHood said in a recent Washington Post interview.
“There will be no raising the gas tax under this administration, particularly because of the rough shape that our economy is in, and with so many people out of work, it’s very difficult to be talking to people about raising the gas tax.”
Earlier this year, President Obama’s Administration slapped down a suggestion by LaHood that the government tax motorists based on how many miles they drive rather than how much gasoline they burn. Now, Congress is thinking perhaps a vehicle mileage tax (VMT) needs to be considered as one of several approaches to funding our transportation infrastructure.
“Well, look it, that’s something that I think Congress will talk about in the context of a lot of different alternatives, other than – you know, to build on the Highway Trust Fund and to supplement the Highway Trust Fund, and that debate will go on in Congress because Congress knows it needs to find ways to really supplement the Highway Trust Fund,” LaHood said.
When LaHood was asked what people’s assessment of his first 100 days would be, he responded, “That I was able to really help the President to the extent that we had $48 billion in the economic stimulus plan. Every State in the country now is starting to receive some of that money. Every State has had projects that have been certified by our Department, and my point is we’re getting money out the door.
“So, as soon as the weather breaks around the country, you’re going to see an enormous number of people working in good-paying jobs that will be our opportunity at DOT to help the President jump-start the economy.
“We’ve played a big role in that, whether it’s grants to airports for new runways, whether it’s new highways, whether it’s resurfacing highways, whether it’s transit districts, new buses, and I think we have played a big role in the hundred days of jump-starting the economy.”
LaHood is also working to develop “livable communities” that tie together transportation and housing. Goals are to provide more choices for affordable housing near employment opportunities, more transportation options with lower costs and shorter travel times and a better environment.
“I think everyone, urban and rural alike, needs safe and affordable access. Access to work, to medical services, to schools, to shopping, to recreation and to other essential activities,” LaHood wrote recently, on his blog, Fastlane.
“I think also the President wants to create opportunities for people to live in communities where they don’t always have to be in an automobile to get where they’re going, that perhaps there’s a bus, perhaps there’s light rail, perhaps there’s a bicycle path, perhaps there’s a walking path.”