After Feel-Good Hearing, Ray LaHood Likely to be Confirmed as DOT Sec this Afternoon

Members of the Senate found a lot to like in Secretary of Transportation-designate Ray LaHood, doing little to criticize him. There was little mention of the recent revelation that he was one of the House’s top users of earmarks, many of which went directly to Caterpillar, a company located in his district. Senators praised his ability to work across the aisle, arguing that he is a fair, firm, and reliable politician, and someone who gets things done. The Committee also decided to push forward his appointment as Secretary, and he will be approved by the Committee this afternoon by 4:30 PM, as long as there is unanimous consent, which appears very likely, considering the way the committeemembers were acting. It will then be picture-12 pushed forward to a vote by the full Senate this afternoon. Mr. LaHood, in other words, will be the Secretary of Transportation this afternoon.

There is little surprising about the Committee’s easy response to him – he was a congressman for decades, and there are few people Senators and Representatives like more than their own colleagues.

Mr. LaHood portrayed himself as a pusher of “new ideas” in transportation during questioning (some of which is transcribed at the bottom of the post). He argued that he would talk to as many different people as possible to get things done. He would work in a bipartisan manner, perhaps not a surprising statement coming from a Republican working in a Democratic administration. He didn’t say all too much about transit or rail, but certainly didn’t come across as an opponent of alternative transportation, either. He came across as reasonable, open, and not too heavily weighted towards highway funding.

He said the following in his prepared statements for the Committee:

We must acknowledge the new reality of climate change. This has implications for all areas; investments in intercity rail and mass transit, as called for in the economic recovery and reinvestment plan, are part of the equation, but only part. Sustainability must be a principle reflected in all our infrastructure investments, from highways and transit to aviation and ports.  President-Elect Obama is committed to this principle and so am I.”

Obviously, it’s good to know that Mr. LaHood is going to pursue investments in intercity rail and mass transit. In such a short statement, little more than this could have been expected. He also talked a bit about the reauthorization of the Transportation Bill later this year, which he hoped would allow more flexibility in transportation dollars. That is, funds would be appropriated in the manner in which communities wish, rather than in a predetermined, one-size-fits-all way. This would be a meaningful and appropriate change to the current policy, which emphasized highways over pretty much everything else.

However, there were no more specifics in his testimony, other than his repeated interest in working on a bipartisan basis. He stated that there are “no Republican or Democratic transportation issues,” a point with which recent history does not agree. But perhaps the end of the Bush administration means a change in the strigent anti-transit and anti-rail beliefs of Republicans?

Some of the Senators did speak about reforming the Transportation Department’s decision-making based around important criteria. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) argued that environmental considerations ought to take precedent.

Senator John Rockefeller (D-WV) said the following in his opening testimony:

Another issue I am increasingly passionate about is climate change, which cuts across all modes of transportation.  I plan to further investigate the relationship between transportation and climate change in my role as Chairman, looking at what contribution our transportation system makes to climate change effects and how we should be planning to adapt our transportation network in reaction to those effects.    I have been disappointed at the DOT’s level of commitment to address climate change issues, in particular its failure to adequately staff and utilize the Office of Climate Change and Environment created by this Committee in 2007.  Given the incoming President’s leadership on this issue, I am hopeful that you will usher in a new era of proactive engagement at the DOT on the issue of climate change so that we can try to slow, and ultimately reverse, the effects of our unbridled production of carbon dioxide…

Additionally, after years of neglect, Congress finally passed a long-term Amtrak authorization last fall that provides strong support for our national railroad.  As Secretary, I will be looking to you and the Department to fully and quickly implement this bill and to further pursue the development of high-speed rail corridors in areas where such service can help alleviate highway and aviation congestion.  On the freight rail side, I’m hoping you’ll help us develop ways to improve competition and service in the railroad industry while ensuring that the railroads are able to adequately invest in their infrastructure to meet growing demand.

Mr. Rockefeller’s testimony points to the fact that the Senate Committee will focus on using transportation as a way to improve the environment. This would necessarily mean a focus on rail and transit systems, which are by definition more environmentally friendly than automobile-based transportation. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) expressed excitement about the prospect of having an intercity rail system as the Department of Transportation’s next long-term project. Mr. DeMint pointed out that such a network could be effective congestion-reliever and alternative to air travel. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) mentioned the importance of mass transit and railroads, arguing for the improved financing of Amtrak and the improved regulation of freight railroads.

There were a few interesting questions posed to Mr. LaHood.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX): “Do you support the full national Amtrak system?”

  • Mr. LaHood: “Amtrak bill is a very good bill… I want to implement the bill effectively… the system is a lifeblood for many of the country’s communities.” Mr. LaHood also argued against tolling existing roadways in response to another question from Ms. Hutchison, but argued that new bridges and the like could be tolled.

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ): “Can we count on you to fight to get us the full amount of money we need to fund Amtrak?” “Can we count on you for these new projects, like the new rail tunnel under the Hudson river?”

  • Mr. LaHood: “I’ve been a strong supporter of Amtrak…You can count on me, Senator.”

Senator Klobuchar: “We talked about thinking outside-the-box when it comes to financing… Could you give me some out-of-the-box ideas for replenishing the highway trust fund?”

  • Mr. LaHood: “Public/private programs… Tolling of new lanes, tolling of highways, is a different way of thinking about it… We need to think of those kind of opportunities… Differently than just the gasoline tax… We know that people are still using Amtrak even though gas prices went down, we know people in places like Chicago are still using mass transit.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO): “Earmarks… have flourished because [the Transportation Bill] is too complicated… clearly it’s not a matter of bringing extra money to a state… my state has a lot of planning… when we are earmarking a project, we are often pushing forward something that a state doesn’t want… when that money could have gone to core funding.” “I want to make sure the Secretary of Transportation will fight against earmarks.”

  • Mr. LaHood: “We’re going to do everything we can… this money can come to your state, but it has to be for projects that have been planned and have been organized. We’re going to hold governors accountable, and we’re going to make sure there are going to be no earmarked dollars…. but it’s up to the members [of the Senate] to decide whether or not there will be earmarks!… President Obama wants to eliminate earmarks… I work for President Obama… I will work with the committee to fashion the bill… and if it doesn’t have one earmark, it won’t cause me any heartburn.”

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA): “I hope we will be looking at a project on a more multimodal basis… will you look at the structure of the Department?” “My hope… is that as you look at some of the projects, I would love that  some of the projects be measured on new measures… such as livability.” [Rather than just cost-effectiveness, as is the current norm.]

  • Mr. LaHood: “I’m going to be very hands on… I’m going to get all these modal administrators together and inform them that… we need less bureaucracy and less red tape… if it involves combining agencies, than we’ll look at that.” “You have my commitment to do that Senator, and I think the reauthorization bill is going to allow us to do that.

Senator Mark Begich (D-AK): Referring to the stimulus bill: “It’s going so much to the state bureaucracy that… you’ll knock 15-20% off the cost of the project, just on overheard… I honestly think the system is broken just on the deliverability of the projects… if you talk to any mayor, this is a significant problem, how to delivery money in regards to highway funds.”

  • Mr. LaHood: “In Los Angeles County, the voters passed a referendum to provide an enormous amount of money for infrastructure projects [Measure R, which was for mass transit]… I think that’s an innovative way of thinking about the problem… as you know, President Obama wants to get this money out… we have to make sure that this money is held accountable.

Senator Rockefeller: “You have an ability to answer questions with such a straight-ahead manner… I’m tremendously pleased about you having been our first nominee.”

Image above: Ray LaHood

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