Ray LaHood, a conservative Republican Congressman from ethanol-loving Illinois, with a lifetime 27 percent rating by the League of Conservation Voters, is President Barack Obama's perhaps unlikely choice for Transportation Secretary. But many presidents, and Obama in particular, have made bipartisanship a cornerstone, so that meant Republican cabinet picks.
LaHood, whose confirmation hearing was rescheduled from January 14 to January 21 (evidently because his paperwork was not in order), is reportedly close to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel. But transportation is no administrative backwater -- the agency employs almost 60,000 people and has an annual budget of $58 billion. And it's crucially important that the department supports public transportation initiatives and not just the usual big highway projects. Here are some green priorities for the incoming transportation secretary.
Share the Stimulus Wealth
Support Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) and his proposal to more equitably divide the transportation spending in the stimulus package. Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is proposing a two-year, $85 billion package. Of that, highways would get $30 billion, local public transportation $12 billion and "environmental infrastructure" (including water projects) $14.3 billion. LaHood's support would be critical. This is a big policy shift for a department that has never been all that friendly toward transit aid.
Support Congestion Pricing
Get behind congestion pricing to reduce the number of cars on the highway. In London, commuters pay a daily fee to drive into the central city. The plan was originally opposed by business groups, but now they embrace it. Stockholm and Singapore have both adapted congestion pricing. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg embarked on an ultimately quixotic campaign for similar charges in Manhattan, and now, with a $1 million federal grant, the city of San Francisco is studying the idea. Since it's San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors wants to make it equitable, so there could be lower rates for commercial fleets, seniors and low-income people and others.
A variation on this idea is simply to offer variable pricing on bridges and tolls, with steeper fees during peak commuter times. Again, federal endorsement (and funding to study the concepts) could turn this good idea into reality.
Build Fast Rail Links
One of the first things Jeb Bush did as governor of Florida was kill the state's ambitious high-speed rail plan, which would have connected major cities with 200-mile-per-hour trains. There are existing high-speed rail corridors in various states of development, but none is ready to roll. These include the aforementioned Florida corridor, the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative (linking Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit and Indianapolis), the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor (including Washington, D.C., Richmond, Virginia and two cities in North Carolina) and California High-Speed Rail (San Diego to Sacramento), Salish-Willamette Express (Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia) and a New York City to Buffalo line.
The DOT has designated these corridors for study, but hasn't done much more. LaHood could change that, but his record on the issue is not good.
Resist the Highway Lobby
Highways are the richest form of pork barrel projects, and that's generally what the states ask for when seeking their share of transportation funding. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials says there are 5,000 projects (95 percent of them highway-related) that could be funded at a cost of $64 billion. Some of those roads may be needed, but it's generally a truism that "you can't build out of congestion." Federal money also has to go to helping cities build light-rail projects and bike paths.
Transportation for America has an alternative suggestion: $33 billion in environmentally friendly transportation projects that, like the highways, are "shovel ready."
Enforce Tough Mileage Standards
The Department of Transportation administers the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program, which aims for 35 miles per gallon by 2020. That standard could easily go to 40 mpg and beyond. The DOT should also reform the new car window sticker so it reflects a variety of environmental data, including climate impact and emissions per mile.
Rise Above His Record
Some good people may be wary of working with LaHood, because he's been close to highway-lobby pillar Caterpillar (one blog quotes a former Federal Transit Administration figure as calling LaHood "Caterpillar's bag man"). He's not particularly good on climate change or transit. But LaHood's strength is that he's not known as a total ideologue, and if a focused Obama gives him a progressive laundry list it may not turn out so badly.