A Transpo Secretary Who’s Hard to Believe In

On Monday, Obama announced his "green dream team." Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wasn’t there.

been calling around to Congressional staffers, advocates and insiders
to get a better sense of what Obama’s appointment of Ray LaHood as
transportation secretary means for those pushing for sustainable
transport, smart growth, livable streets. While no one is giving up
hope on the Obama administration a month before the inauguration, the
general consensus is pretty clear. As one insider summed it up: "It’s a
real read-it-and-weep moment."

The selection of a downstate Illinois Republican with close ties to highway lobby stalwart Caterpillar Inc.
is being taken by many as a clear sign that progressive transportation
policy is, for now, nowhere near the top of the Obama’s agenda.

still hasn’t made the transportation – land use – climate connection,"
Petra Todorovich, director of Regional Plan Association’s America 2050
program said. "It’s clear he’s thinking about these things in separate
categories." For Todorovich and other advocates, the LaHood pick was
the second shoe to drop this week. The first piece of bad news arrived
on Monday when Obama trotted out his "green dream team," his
appointments to key environmental, energy and climate posts, and the
transportation secretary was nowhere to be found.

President George W. Bush did before him, Obama has chosen to use the
transportation secretary slot as a place to show bipartisanship. "This
sends the message that the transportation secretary is a throw-away
political appointment who doesn’t matter,’ said a city transportation
official who, like others, asked to remain anonymous to preserve their
relationship with the U.S. DOT. "This is the slot for the token
Republican. It’s the bottom of the barrel. A bone you can throw."

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?" Many feel that former F.A.A. chief Jane Garvey would have been the better choice.

New Yorkers, the LaHood selection is reminiscent of Mayor Michael
Bloomberg’s choice in 2002 to retain Iris Weinshall as the city’s DOT
Commissioner. Like LaHood, Weinshall had no real expertise or
background in transportation policy (though, unlike LaHood, she did
have actual administrative experience). Weinshall, who is married to
Senator Chuck Schumer, was a political appointment and the results
spoke for themselves. New York City transportation policy didn’t really
start moving in a progressive direction until she left office and was
replaced by someone with deep experience in transportation policy,
Janette Sadik-Khan.

What does LaHood’s appointment mean for this
year’s multi-hundred billion dollar transportation reauthorization?
That will largely be up to Obama. "We need to radically change the way
we think about transportation," said one Congressional staffer focused
on raising more money for urban-oriented mass transit while reducing
dependence on the gas tax. "LaHood is not a bold choice. He is not the
transportation policy expert we were looking for. But if Obama empowers
him to push a progressive agenda, that’s what we’ll be pushing in

Down in D.C. the advocates are still hopeful. Said
one: "He’s not an ideologue and he’ll probably be taking direction from
good people." Said another: This is "probably Obama’s weakest pick" but
people with ties to LaHood "say he is potentially malleable." It ain’t
much, but it’s something.

In a funny way, the bad news is good
news for progressive transportation policy advocates. Their business
will be booming in 2009.


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