Ray LaHood: The Obama Appointment You Should Be Really Worried About

This piece first appeared in Worldchanging.

Soon, the U.S. Senate will hold a confirmation hearing on the president-elect's choice of Ray LaHood for Secretary of Transportation. No one expects that hearing to be anything but easy for LaHood. That's too bad, because it shows that when it comes to greening the stimulus, we're not only missing the forest for the trees, we're not even seeing the trees right.

In case you haven't been following the news, LaHood is a conservative Illinois Republican with little transportation expertise and almost no administrative experience, who has earned a LCV lifetime voting score on critical environmental issues of 27 percent, and who maintains deep financial connections to the very industries he's now supposed to regulate. He may be no worse than most of those who've lead the Department of Transportation, but his appointment is a profoundly uninspiring vote for business as usual at a time when we need change, and an strong indication that the administration doesn't get that energy policy, technological innovation, urban planning, environmental sustainability and transportation are all bound up together, and no solution to our problems can be had without tackling them all together.

LaHood's appointment is so disappointing to transportation advocates who've been waiting eight years for change, that they're boiling with indignant disbelief, branding him "an unbelievably disastrous pick," "Status quo we can believe in" and "same.gov" (a dig at the Obama transition site, change.gov). As one insider summed it up: "It's a real read-it-and-weep moment."

LaHood supporters point out that the president-elect promised to appoint Republicans, and LaHood is trusted by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Obama had to throw Republicans a bone somewhere, they argue: why not Transportation?

Because given the crises we face, the U.S. Department of Transportation is not a minor agency. This year it had a $58 billion budget and employed almost 60,000 people. What's more, the Secretary of Transportation will guide the spending of vast amounts of stimulus spending, oversee the auto industry bailout and be responsible for a raft of critical policy decisions that will dictate the shape of our cities and the choices we have for getting around for decades -- and thus indirectly our energy policies as well, since transportation is where much of our energy use goes. In fact, in an era of climate change, energy crisis and economic distress, Transportation may be one of the most important posts in the president's cabinet.

A good Secretary of Transportation could help lead the U.S. into a bright green economy. A status-quo Transportation Secretary will not only weaken our chances of getting real reform in priorities and practices, he will drive off the very kind of smart, innovative people government agencies most need to attract back into government if they are going to drive change. As Streetsblog reveals:

Progressive transportation policy advocates are also concerned that LaHood will have trouble drawing good people to the agency. "In terms of attracting talent, no one I know is going to want to work for this guy," said a former Federal Transit Administration official. "He's got a horrible environmental record, he's bad on climate change and he's Caterpillar's bag man. Can we get a worse appointment?"

And we're going to need a volley of new ideas in transportation. DOT has authority, or at least influence, over all sorts of important transportation policies, including things like aviation standards, shipping and trucking, insurance rules, road construction standards. Want complete streets, pay-as-you-go car insurance or high speed interstate rail connections? DOT will have a hand in deciding whether you get them.

It also sets mileage and safety standards for cars. Want a plug-in car in every smart garage, connected by a renewables-friendly smart grid? DOT will play a critical role in deciding whether, when and how plug-in cars and electric car infrastructure happens.

It oversees all of the Federal government's research programs. Want the groundwork done on new policies and technologies? DOT is the one handing out the research dollars.

But even more importantly, Transportation is about to play a key role in handing out hundreds of billions of dollars over the next few years. Without the right kind of progressive, knowledgeable leadership, the stimulus package, the bailout and the new transportation bill will together fund the largest single step backwards the U.S. transportation system has taken since the end of World War Two: a massive investment in new highways, suburban sprawl and minimally more efficient, taxpayer-subsidized new cars.

The numbers are clear. A recent study shows that the vast majority of the transportation funding asked for by the states is for new highway construction (PDF), primarily on the suburban fringe.. As The Hill reports, this represents an astonishing gusher of money aimed at building more highways:

"The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) said there are 5,000 ready-to-go projects, worth $64 billion. Fully funded, the projects would support 1.8 million jobs, the group said. ...as much as 95 percent of the programs go to traditional transportation programs."

That's a lot of money to spend in one year, but the Highway Lobby could not be happier with the prospects for getting even more funding in years to come. "The 2009 federal highway and transit authorization bill provides the best opportunity in more than 50 years to... significantly boost the highway and bridge construction market for the future," said American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) President & CEO Pete Ruane. Meanwhile, a number of builders groups representing suburban developers and The American Highway Users Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of auto-related businesses, heartily endorse LaHood's appointment.

Since the economy is sagging so severely, some argue that much of the stimulus package needs to go to "shovel-ready" infrastructure: existing projects or plans that can be quickly completed and approved and undertaken. All those who have gotten rich off the status quo -- the Highway Lobby, suburban developers, state transportation agencies, even the Teamsters -- are saying that "shovel ready" can only mean "roads." They're wrong.

We're ready to run with all sorts of better alternatives. Transportation for America, a new national coalition of smart growth, transit and good government groups, has already put forward an alternative list of $33 billion worth of shovel-ready but environmentally-friendly transportation infrastructure projects, and is lobbying for $100 billion in total investment in transit and other climate-friendly solutions.

What's more, we should be more worried about spending the money right than spending it quickly: as Paul Krugman said in a recent column, "Why does the time frame have to be short? ...Right now the investment portion of the Obama plan is limited by a shortage of 'shovel ready' projects, projects ready to go on short notice. A lot more investment can be under way by late 2010 or 2011 if Mr. Obama gives the go-ahead now..."

So, while Transportation for America is doing critical work (their platform is well worth a read), their proposals do not go nearly far enough, when measured against our need for change or our opportunity to use this change to solve multiple problems at once by doing the right thing instead of the expedient thing.

This administration's combination of new politics and new funding sources is a one-time shot, and it's coming at a moment when we can't afford to lose another decade if we want to stave off climate change, make the U.S. energy independent, revitalize our communities and create the bright green economy of the future.

At this critical juncture, nothing could be a worse investment than building more highways. New highways are simply a catastrophic choice. Even highway expansion is a waste of money: you can't build your way out of a traffic jam. As you pave more lanes, more drivers crowd on to them -- for instance, after spending $15 billion on its Big Dig highway expansion Boston's traffic is worse, overall. Building more highways just means more people driving, more cars stuck in traffic, more people killed in accidents, and more pollution.

The last part -- pollution -- is critical. A highway-focused federal transportation agenda can't be reconciled with the incoming administration's promise to take on climate change. Building new highways to provide mobility is the transportation equivalent of building new coal plants to provide energy.

Transportation generates more than a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gases, according to the E.P.A.. A portion of that comes from moving freight around (mostly on highways), but more than 20 percent is personal transportation, and almost all of that is auto-related. Even if we actually get them (and, again, LaHood does not inspire confidence that the auto bailout will actually lead to green vehicles), driving cleaner cars on those proposed new freeways won't do much good, because many of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere by our transportation system don't come out of the tailpipes of those cars: manufacturing, building highways and so on all contribute mightily to our climate problems. Auto dependence is in-and-of-itself a critical contributor to climate change. No technofix is available to change that and building new highways will only make it worse.

The alternative is not just transit, it's cities that work. There is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. We ought to be doing everything in our power to stop sprawl, grow compact communities, and make better transportation investments to help us leave our cars at home -- something we can only do if more of what we want is close at hand, and other transportation choices are convenient and cheap.

This one-time wave of funding will do one of two things: it will further entrench a broken system, or it will begin to build a new and better one. In the next six years, we'll either dump hundreds of billions of dollars into highways, roads and bridges or we'll begin to revitalize our communities and transform our economy. Sprawl or urban renaissance? That's ultimately the choice we have.

We need to insist that at least half of the stimulus goes to climate-friendly transportation projects that will create green jobs: a massive investment in light rail and other urban transit, commuter rail, inter-city high-speed trains, bike paths, pedestrian improvements (including, simply, sidewalks), support for the planning and development of transit-oriented communities and the deployment of new technologies to facilitate innovations like congestion pricing, dynamic parking and smarter commutes. These are the kinds of transportation infrastructure our kids will be glad we invested in, the kinds 21st century cities demand. Furthermore, we ought to insist that the first year's worth of "shovel-ready" auto-oriented projects be limited to much-needed repairs of existing infrastructure and demand that subsequent investments meet smart growth standards. We can be even more sure that our transportation dollars support compact development rather than sprawl by sending the money directly to cities, bypassing the state governments and their often corrupt and outdated bureaucracies.

Voters are already coming to understand that there's a link between climate change, land use and transportation. With effective leadership, I think we Americans are ready now to choose a new path forward: bright green, thriving cities instead of more boom-bust sprawl.

We need a Secretary of Transportation who sees the choice, can articulate it to the American people, and can lead the fight for change. Without that change, none of Obama's promises on climate, on cities, on energy independence or on green jobs can be fulfilled.

And to get that Secretary, we're going to need a citizen's movement that pushes the Obama administration and Congress to demand new transportation priorities in this stimulus package. That fight has barely even begun.


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