The U.S. has a wealth of transportation experts, most of whom work for think tanks and produce thick reports nobody reads. But any one of them might have been a good choice for President Obama's secretary of transportation. Instead, he picked Ray LaHood, a Republican former congressman from Illinois with what the New York Times describes as a "thin" record on the issues.
LaHood's from a state that loves its ethanol, and is reportedly close to such pillars of the highway lobby as Caterpillar. He's been lukewarm on California's vital high-speed rail plan. He wins praise as a bipartisan consensus builder, however, and Obama is friendly with him.
The streets of San Francisco: congestion charging?
Most incoming administrations like to include at least one member of the other party in the cabinet, and often it's a post where they can't do a whole lot of harm. But transportation is a critical portfolio for the next four years. The secretary will have to help oversee the $17.4 billion auto bailout, and new federal fuel economy standards that should get us to 35 mpg by 2020. He'll have to try and fulfill Obama's plan for a million plug-in hybrids by 2015. And he'll have to be a big advocate for mass transit, considering that Obama is pledging to reduce climate emissions and our dependence on foreign oil.
LaHood does have a positive record on mass transit support, especially Amtrak subsidies. Congress needs to reapportion transportation money so transit gets a fair share. Right now, as the Times reported, 80 percent of gas taxes go to bridges and highways, and only 20 percent to transit. House Transportation Chair James Oberstar wants to allocate $42 million from the stimulus package so that public transportation gets $12 billion, and the insatiable highways $30 billion. Still skewed, but not quite as badly. LaHood needs to work for bipartisan support for such proposals.
We were on the road to reducing vehicle miles traveled until gas prices dropped like a stone. Now we'll have to look to other ways of getting people out of their cars. I'm heartened that San Francisco (which is also poised to create an electric car infrastructure through the California-based Better Place) is seriously studying congestion pricing -- charging drivers for entering congested sections of the city. The model is London, which began charging fees in 2003 under former mayor Ken Livingstone. After initial resistance, the scheme gained popularity because it worked -- traffic in the core dropped almost 20 percent. Singapore and Stockholm, Sweden also charge congestion fees.
The wags are asking, "What's under LaHood"? I guess we'll find out.
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