Democracy Soup

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Can Ray LaHood get past ‘airports and highways’ mentality as Transportation Secretary?

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Originally published on on Thu, 12/18/2008 – 12:29pm

As for the pick of Ray LaHood for Transportation Secretary, “Will it play in Peoria?”

Well, LaHood is from Peoria, a Republican, and is expected to be named Secretary of Transportation. Like Norman Mineta, LaHood would be a crossover Transportation Secretary.

The pick might play in Peoria, but the problems are mostly in big cities, those neglected by transportation secretaries for decades.

LaHood does like Amtrak, as does our vice-president elect. And he seems warm to public transit. But does he have a grasp on the transportation issues affecting our large cities?

As much as Obama is pulling from Chicago to fill his cabinet (Arne Duncan? Really?), it would be nice to have an individual who understands the needs of big-city transit. I should be glad, at least, that Obama didn’t pick a Chicago transportation person since our CTA is so poorly run.

Transportation secretaries have focused on two things: airports and highways. One likely non-coincidence is that Mineta now has the San Jose airport named after him, the honor given to him in November 2001 while serving as Secretary of Transportation.

We need a transportation secretary who understands trains, buses, mass transit, and high-speed rail trains.

Amtrak doesn’t really play in Peoria, and hasn’t for about 25 years. But being from Peoria, there is hope that LaHood would be in favor of high-speed rail, a win-win solution that improves train travel and reduces air travel. While Peoria has a curbside bus stop near the airport, there is no Amtrak train stop. But there is the nearby Chicago-St. Louis route (a 45-minute drive from Peoria to Bloomington/Normal, a stop on the route), one that would benefit from high-speed rail.

Amtrak has had its troubles getting funding from Congress. Its popularity in certain corridors, such as the Northeast (where Vice President elect Joe Biden rides), the Midwest out of Chicago, and the West Coast, still thrives. But it has had trouble outside those corridors, mostly due to a lack of federal funding.

One growth area that needs to be watched is major city to major city bus travel, companies such as Megabus. The next Transportation Secretary needs to balance these companies and Greyhound as well as Amtrak to make sure they all can thrive and reduce airport travel. (Yes, I’ve ridden Megabus as well as Greyhound and Amtrak.)

Barack Obama will be our first president from an urban center since John F. Kennedy in 1961, and our mass transit options are more important than ever. So Obama will have to show LaHood the importance of providing help to the major cities where productivity increases with a strong running mass transit system (though again, not using Chicago as a solid example).

LaHood is in there to play politics by working with Republicans to get them to support anything besides airports and highways. Good luck. Though LaHood disagrees with his Republican cohorts on these issues, he has been in office since 1995 and watched as then House Speaker Newt Gingrich go through and threaten to cut off funding to Amtrak on a regular basis.

Like agriculture, labor, and probably just about every other Cabinet post, the next secretary has a lot of work to do to clean up the mess left behind. But like agriculture, transportation has suffered from decades of neglect. There is a lot of work to do. Barack Obama does seem to understand this. If Ray LaHood doesn’t, then hopefully Obama will point him in the right direction.


Written by democracysoup

December 18, 2008 at 12:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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