LaHood Confirmation Delayed; Obama Briefing Book Highlights Rail Investment

Our failure earlier this evening to be available for a live-blog of the confirmation hearing for Secretary of Transportation-designate Ray LaHood turns out to have been unimportant. Mr. LaHood’s hearing was postponed to next week because, as the New York Times puts it, “A Senate aide who asked not to be named said that Mr. LaHood’s paperwork had not been sent over by the transition staff, and may not be completed yet.” This would sound innocent enough.

Yet as Hugh Bartling pointed out (thanks to Streetsblog.net) this morning, today’s Washington Post broke the devastating news that just last year, Mr. LaHood sponsored $60 million of earmarks, at least $9 million of which went directly to campaign donors. $7.8 million of that money went to Caterpillar, a company from his district. That puts him in the top 10% of congressmen in terms of the amount of funds he got out of Congress for his pet projects.

Does this put Mr. LaHood in a troubling position? At this point, it’s hard to tell. Mr. Obama has stated his opposition to the use of earmarks, which are usually placed in bills without the consent of the full assembly and which reward communities with funds not based on actual need but instead on the strength of their respective congressmen. So will Mr. Obama have second thoughts about appointing a man who has taken full advantage of the earmarking system? Is that why his hearing was delayed today? Or should we trust the official version of events?

We’ve been disappointed with the selection of Mr. LaHood since his candidature became clear on December 17th last year. He has no strong transportation background, and he’s often been an advocate of roads rather than the development of transit. He’s been a willing – but not excited – supporter of Amtrak. Is this the person we need in charge of the huge infrastructure-building component of the stimulus package? Is the news that he was willing to direct funds directly to a local corporation through the earmark system bad enough to merit replacing him with someone more friendly to our interests? We’ll wait and see.

There is one place where people aren’t waiting-and-seeing on transportation matters, however: on the new Citizen’s Briefing Book established by the President-Elect to allow individuals to suggest ideas about how to improve the country. And guess what’s number one on the list so far? A proposal for “Bullet Trains & Light Rail.” The suggestion encourages “bullet trains” (no specific definition given) between cities and removing funding from highway construction for light rail building. We like what we see, and we’re glad that the people who have voted so far seem to agree.

The overwhelmingly positive response in favor of these rail initiatives again has stoked the attention of the administration, and another video released by Change.gov this afternoon addressed the issue. Chair-designee for the White House Council on Environmental Quality Nancy Sutley says the following in the video at the bottom of the post:

When I talk to people and they ask me what I can do to reduce their carbon footprint and to reduce their environmental impact, one of the very easy things many people can do is to use transit. Even just one day a week or replacing one car trip a week by using transit will help the environment and help lower your carbon footprint and your environmental impact. And high-speed rail is an idea that’s really taking off across the country, in the way of linking our communities together, making travel fast and efficient, and environmentally – having fewer environmental impacts. I’m from California, and we just voted for high-speed rail and we’re very excited about it, and so we’ll be really excited to look into high-speed rail and see what we can do to support high-speed rail and to support transit in our economic recovery package.”

Once again: good comments from the Obama administration-to-be. Important points the policy-makers are pushing here:

  • Using transit is a good way to help the environment
  • High-speed rail is good at connecting communities quickly and is environmentally friendly
  • California high-speed rail is a good project
  • We can use the economic recovery package to support transit and high-speed rail

We’ll focus on the last point, and keep looking forward to good news.

What change we hope this new administration brings.*

* Sarcasm will be muted if and when action proves the motto is justified.

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