Ray LaHood – HSR Denier?

Dec 17th, 2008 | Posted by

Some troubling news out of Chicago where a relatively unknown Republican Congressman from Illinois, Ray LaHood, is slated to become Barack Obama’s Secretary of Transportation.

LaHood doesn’t appear to have much of a record as a transportation expert – at least when Bush crossed the aisle for Norman Y. Mineta he got someone who knew the issues well. But the troubling thing is that what LaHood has said about HSR isn’t encouraging. From 2004:

LaHood dismisses Illinois Amtrak high-speed service

U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood (R) said on July 15 he does not favor high-speed rail for Illinois.

“I think it’s a bad idea, mainly because we don’t have the money to fund the routes that currently serve Illinois,” LaHood said at the Statehouse.

Amtrak President David Gunn said earlier this week in Chicago that upgrading the Chicago-St. Louis corridor for faster passenger trains is a top priority for Amtrak. Planners want trains to be able to go 110 mph in the corridor, while the current top speed is 79 mph – but it would take nearly $200 million for the next phase of track and equipment upgrades.

LaHood said he considers Amtrak “the lifeblood transportation for small communities,” and he knows many college students from Chicago’s suburbs use trains to travel to school, Copley News Service reported via The Lincoln Courier.

“On the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is fabulous,” LaHood added, “and after 9-11, it became the transportation of choice for a lot of people because they felt it was safer than flying.

“I think if we’re going to have a pot of money where we subsidize airlines and we subsidize the funding of highways, that we certainly ought to continue to subsidize Amtrak,” LaHood said.

He said, “I don’t think we can afford at this point, with the kind of deficits we’re running,” to be talking about high-speed rail.

While funding is his main concern, he said, “People in rural Illinois are not for high-speed rail… They do not want a train traveling 120, 125, 150 miles per hour through the rural areas, and I support them on that.”

Obviously 2008 is different from 2004, and the “HSR vs. Amtrak local” dichotomy that LaHood set up in these 2004 comments may no longer apply (if it ever did). But this doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in our new Secretary of Transportation, who ought to be someone who understands the ins and outs of transportation policy, particularly high speed rail.

Some may argue that Obama-Biden’s strong support for HSR will force LaHood to change his views. But that’s quite a risk to be taking with such an important position. Many transit advocates are either wary or skeptical of the choice with one commenter at Streetsblog writing:

Not to sound like a reactionary here, but given the pool of great candidates like Janette Sadik-Khan and Earl Blumenauer, you have got to be freaking kidding me.

Blumenauer had taken his name out of the running and endorsed Mortimer Downey. The Bay Area’s own Steve Heminger was high on the list too, with support from Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Other names like Jim Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee, had also been floated.

There are rumors that Rahm Emanuel had a big role to play in suggesting LaHood, who may be a purely political appointment to satisfy Obama’s desire to have some Republicans in the Administration. If so this was a particularly bad place to put one, especially if LaHood doesn’t have the expertise to fill this vital role effectively.

We need the DOT’s help big time to get HSR off the ground – from FRA exemptions to disbursements of money; the Kerry HSR bill sets up an Office of High Speed Rail within the DOT. We need someone heading that department who knows what they’re doing and who fully supports high speed rail. I am concerned Ray LaHood is not that person.

Something for the confirmation hearings, I guess…

  1. Anonymous
    Dec 17th, 2008 at 15:21
    #1

    Words cannot describe how angry this makes me.

  2. nikko pigman
    Dec 17th, 2008 at 15:47
    #2

    Not to sound like a reactionary here, but given the pool of great candidates like Janette Sadik-Khan and Earl Blumenauer, you have got to be freaking kidding me.

    Blumenauer had taken his name out of the running and endorsed Mortimer Downey. The Bay Area’s own Steve Heminger was high on the list too, with support from Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Other names like Jim Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee, had also been floated.

    There are rumors that Rahm Emanuel had a big role to play in suggesting LaHood, who may be a purely political appointment to satisfy Obama’s desire to have some Republicans in the Administration. If so this was a particularly bad place to put one, especially if LaHood doesn’t have the expertise to fill this vital role effectively.

    I have to echo those comments. There were quite a few guys I was rooting for, Blumenaur, Heminger, Oberstar, and even Scuttlebutt but Obama chose this guy…my feeling is that this appointment was more oriented towards making the cabinet appear to be bipartisan. There are quite a few cabinet spots I would actually have preferred that a Republican be chosen, but transportation secy…of all the positions to choose a moderate/republican.

    Hopefully, they can make the argument that the guy has no experience in transportation policy (which is true) other than voting yes or no on certain bills in Congress.

  3. yeson1a
    Dec 17th, 2008 at 17:01
    #3

    Where in the world did this choice come from? Was he even on the media lists? I would have much rather had Tommy Thompson..AND we may be in for some bad news later as the State is stopping many project for now.. due to the budget. Somewhere I read HSR planning is also on that list

  4. AMRivlin
    Dec 17th, 2008 at 20:27
    #4

    Just saw California is stopping all Infrastructure projects.

    Hope we don't get squashed!

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/12/17/state/n160501S19.DTL&type=politics

  5. Ben
    Dec 17th, 2008 at 21:09
    #5

    The suspension of bond sales is temporary, and i don’t think that HSR bonds will be sold for a while anyways

  6. Aaron
    Dec 17th, 2008 at 22:48
    #6

    I have been one of the progressives still saying “Hey, let Obama take office before running him a flagpole for mistakes he hasn’t even made yet.”

    Having said that, between Rick Warren and this, I’m pretty disappointed. I just have to remind myself that Obama’s in charge and he’s tasked with executing Obama’s plan. I’m going to try to not get worked up about this for the time being.

  7. Aaron
    Dec 17th, 2008 at 22:50
    #7

    By the way, and sorry to comment twice, but the halting of infrastructure projects isn’t a budgetary policy move, it’s a panic button because California is about to have a cash crisis unless we get a budget ASAP. It’s certainly not a good thing, but we’re veering towards a government shutdown right now, so I wouldn’t take that as a sign that HSR is going to be delayed years.

    Having said that, unless we can break the GOP stranglehold, there won’t be a California to speak of in 5-10 years.

  8. Anonymous
    Dec 17th, 2008 at 23:19
    #8

    It is not the correct place I know but I don’t know where to contact the blog administrator.
    There was 2 articles the other day in the free daily news paper AM NY
    They are about high speed rail between Washington and NY.
    Here are the links
    http://weblogs.amny.com/entertainment/urbanite/blog/2008/12/private_funds_sought_for_highs.html

    http://weblogs.amny.com/entertainment/urbanite/blog/2008/12/feds_to_push_for_highspeed_tra.html

    The says they want a private operator to run a Washington NY high spped train line. Why can’t Amtrak do that? A special department should be create at Amtrak that can handle this kind of projects. I don’t see anywhere in the world an high speed line funded by a private company. High speed train has to be an affordable public service.

  9. Francis
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 01:38
    #9

    Unlike many Republicans in Congress, LaHood has a record of supporting funding for Amtrak and public transit.

    Its not ALL BAD, but could be WAY BETTER!

  10. Francesco
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 07:14
    #10

    I’m pissed as well. WHo the fuck is LaHood? There were so many more qualified and progressive people out there. I hope the Obama administration doesn’t end up canning any ideas about HSR just because they’re politically difficult.

  11. Rob Dawg
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 09:13
    #11

    “I think it’s a bad idea, mainly because we don’t have the money to fund the routes that currently serve Illinois,” LaHood said at the Statehouse.

    This is a damning comment? Let’s reverse it and guage the reaction:
    “I think it’s a great idea, mainly because we have more than enough money to fund the routes that currently serve Illinois,” LaHood said at the Statehouse.
    See? That comment would have evoked outrage. There’s nothing wrong with a transportation secretary with a priority on fiscal responsibility unless you believe fiscal responsibility is an enemy of CAHSR.

  12. A Lynch
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 09:40
    #12

    I’m holding out hope that Biden is the ‘train czar’ and works with LaHood to get HSR projects pushed through. The pick may be disappointing, but it’s not the end of the world. If you’re given lemons, make lemonade.

  13. Anonymous
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 09:52
    #13

    I am outraged by this appointment! This is a joke! Given how much emphasis Obama has placed on choosing people with experience, to pick Ray LaHood completely flies in the face of logic.

    This pick appears to be primarily a political move to reward a fellow Ill. politician and to show that he is bipartisan by putting another Republican in his Cabinet. Of all the qualified candidates that are out there, he chooses Ray LaHood???? I am extremely disappointed that Obama has chosen someone with so little transportation experience.

  14. Rob Dawg
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 09:53
    #14

    The Biden as policy maker and LaHood as water carrier arrangement is the likely scenario. LaHood is a recently retiring moderate Republican. Who better to twist arms in the Congress?

    No doubt a significant increase in the gas tax is an early proposal. We need about 11¢/gal but I expect a 5¢ Federal and 6¢ state split. Obama is going to need the right side of the aisle for anything like that.

  15. Alon Levy
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 10:07
    #15

    We need about $4/gal

    Corrected.

  16. Anonymous
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 10:15
    #16

    To Anonymous December 17, 2008 11:19 PM
    I see no problem if the government regulated the operator and collected corporate income tax. In 2001, the government of Japan sold to the public all shares in three HSR operators. Firms like Virgin Trains also operate HSR profitably in Britain. Why shouldn’t the traveling public determine the market-clearing fare? Americans need to stop treating HSR as a Left-Right issue.

  17. Rafael
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 10:38
    #17

    @ anon@ 10:15am -

    CHSRA has repeatedly stated that the operations of the system will be put out to tender and that bids from airlines will be welcomed.

    What’s disappointing about this pick for Transportation Secretary is not that he’s a Republican but rather, that he doesn’t appear to have any subject matter expertise in transportation issues. If the objective is to have Biden set policy and Lahood executing it, that’s fine.

    I just don’t know if a water carrier is going to have the drive needed to re-orient an entire department away from guzzling oil and toward using electricity as a transportation fuel. Right now that means electric trains at all distance scales: streetcars, light rail, subways, commuter/regional rail, high speed passenger plus cargo trains and, rapid freight. Electric (folding) bicycles are also a technology that is already available and compatible with a cultural shift away from the automobile and short-haul aviation.

    At some point, mass-produced plug-in hybrids may well materialize, but as long as gasoline is dirt-cheap they won’t sell. Solar/wind farms and a new electricity grid can reduce dependence on coal and gas-fired power plants, albeit at high cost. This will help reduce the US contribution to global CO2 emissions, but it will do exactly nothing to wean the US off crude oil and the military activism to secure continued access to it.

  18. BBinnsandiego
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 13:31
    #18

    I can’t imagine a worse pick, especially considering the credentials of the also rans.

    Obama may have a progressive agenda but I think his focus is health care and energy. I’ll be surprised (pleasantly of course) if we see any thing other than a continuation of an autocentric transportation department.

    Also, I don’t think it’s an oversight that the word “rail” never passes Obama’s lips when he speaks about the upcoming stimulus package. Politicians are very careful choosing words. I’m afraid it’s going to be lots of new concrete and steel for bridges, streets and highways; peanuts for rail.

    The rewrite of the transportation bill in October will tell all.

  19. nikko pigman
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 13:52
    #19

    Ok well I’m glad people are agreeing with my sentiment in general

    @Rob Dawg:

    Regarding your first post, its not a matter of ‘fiscal responsibility’. From LaHood’s perspective, HSR should only be alotted money that might be leftover in the budget, ie if money has already been set aside for roads, they can’t cut down on that to make way for HSR. So, short of raising taxes or risking deficit, he simply dismisses it as infeasible. In reality, transportation funding for roads *should* be displaced for an HSR line. Obviously there are some things you can’t take away, ie basic road and bridge maintenance. But if they’re going to add 4 lanes to a highway that’s going to parallel the future HSR line, that money is better put to use in the HSR line.

  20. Anonymous
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 13:52
    #20

    I definitely am frustrated with the appointment of LaHood, but maybe this could be a good thing. Amtrak has traditionally been the whipping boy of SUV driving conservatives who believe trains are for communists. So, considering LaHood voted for the last two Amtrak bills and considering the great vetting process the Obama team is taking in the selection process, this could work out.

    Republicans would find it harder to criticize increased rail and Amtrak spending if a Republican is the Secretary of Transportation. The Obama team must have got his stance on rail transport and let him know their idea of what rail transport should be; the Secretary does work for the President.

    I know LaHood made comments against HSR in 2004, but that was a while ago.

    Biden is obviously very pro-rail and I think since Obama and Biden are taking the train to inauguration, it sends a clear message where their priorities are.

    LaHood could be the perfect buffer against Republican criticism of increased rail funding, Amtrak funding, public transport and HSR.

  21. Rob Dawg
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 14:34
    #21

    Alon Levy said…
    We need about $4/gal

    Corrected.

    Cute. Think before posting next time. That’s $5.50 per gallon gasoline equivalent. Collapsing economies typically don’t result in tax windfalls. We peaked at 15.9 billion gallons in 2005. Looks to be about 15.4 b/y for 2008. Just exactly what would you do with $65 billion dollars per year? Be sure to set a lot aside for bodyguards and bulletproof vests.

  22. nikko pigman
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 15:32
    #22

    @Rob Dawg: I wouldn’t be so sure of yourself. I’m not going to agree with Alon but it would be inappropriate to disagree with him too.

    Now that I’ve had a few hours to cool off, lemme make another comment. I don’t think this guy is gonna be the big super oil/automobile/highway lobby suckup that the Bush Administration has been but I don’t think he’ll be the champion of rail either. At least Obama is calling the shots, but then again, neither of them have any background on transportation other than what they hear in congress. Biden used to take the train to work every day and obviously has first hand exposure to a very serviceable (if not somewhat inefficient) public transportation system, in addition to reports in Congress, but that does not mean he would be qualified for transportation policy either.

  23. spence
    Dec 18th, 2008 at 17:42
    #23

    Obama doesn’t strike me as very good on transportation policy. That worries me. He gets around in a SUV right? He also seems to have other priorities for his administration. He introduced his environment/energy team separate from his Transportation sec. so he either doesn’t see those issues as being related (!) or he wanted to slip this Republican in via a Friday news dump and then go on vacation, i.e. this one’s a real stinker and he knows it.

    Biden certainly is pro-train, but I don’t know that he is all that progressive in his thinking (TOD, limiting sprawl, etc.). Still, he’s an asset to be sure.

    And Rep. LaHood? He supports Amtrak but not a modern high-speed rail system. He is on the record as opposing fast trains because “rural” people don’t want them and he agrees with them. (?!) He’s also a fossil. Sure he might change his tune in an Obama administration, but he clearly was not brought in because he’s a transportation policy person – he’s someone who Obama thinks he can work with and who fits the bill for being moderate, Republican, having Washington connections, and being a good ol’ boy from Illinois.

    So far I think there is very little to redeem here – I was not at all expecting such a un-“green” choice. Will Obama/LaHood hire a bunch of bright, progressive urbanist types to help redirect policy away from asphalt and towards sustainable transportation systems? Maybe, but we have not seen any signals that this will be the case. And unless Obama is making that case, then why would anyone even want to work for this LaHood? Why go to Washington to serve for a do-nothing status quo republican?

    And if they don’t bring in some smart progressive types, then where exactly are the good ideas going to come from? Why is Obama hiring Nobel-prize winning scientists for other positions and for Transpo he’s nominating a creepy-looking neanderthal?

    I have to admit, I think Obama just gave the brush off to progressives. Time will tell of course, but I think the writing is already on the wall. He’s just not that into us.

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