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Secretary LaHood

LaHood Answers GOP Critic, Soothes Dem Skeptic of Sustainability Budget

As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood tangled with a senior GOP senator today over the White House's $500 million-plus request for its inter-agency office of sustainable communities -- a new project
aimed at channeling federal energy towards local transit-oriented and
smart growth plans -- an influential Democrat joined her fellow senator
in raising questions about diverting highway money to the effort.

3697794785_d3950d9796.jpgSen. Patty Murray (D-WA), center, talks to Transport Secretary Ray LaHood, at left. (Photo: WS DOT via Flickr)

Sen.
Patty Murray (D-WA), chairman of the upper chamber's transportation
spending panel, praised the mission of the sustainability office but
told LaHood she has "concerns about" the Obama administration's pitch
to send $200 million in Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) funding
to the effort next year.

"I also have questions about how these proposals from [U.S.] DOT fit into our larger debate over" paying for the next long-term federal transportation bill, Murray said.

Murray's
measured assessment of the new alliance between LaHood, Housing and
Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, and the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) focused on how federal officials would define
the concept of "sustainability" as they determined how to dole out
grants to local development plans.

But her Republican
counterpart on the spending panel, Sen. Kit Bond (MO), took a harder
line in challenging LaHood on the administration's ability to
positively influence on-the-ground urban and rural planning.

"I'm
not as confident [as others] that trusting federal decision-makers in
Washington to lead the process, to tell communities how they should
grow, is the right way to go," Bond said, tangling with LaHood as he
aligned with a road construction industry group that criticized the
administration's sustainability budget.

Sending that $200
million from highways -- about one-two-hundredth of the FHWA's annual
budget -- to the sustainable communities office "may reflect a view
that we want to get rid of auto transportation," Bond said.

"The
idea we're giving up on [roads] or don't care about the highways is
nonsense," LaHood shot back. "People want other alternatives. We have a
state-of-the-art interstate system. If people need more capacity, they
can tell us that."

Bond's reply was equally charged: "I'm telling you that."

Murray
and Bond's panel is charged with translating the White House budget
request into annual spending legislation for the U.S. DOT and HUD.
Congress ultimately approved
the administration's proposed $150 million in sustainability grants
last year, but this year's higher funding pitch could face a tougher
path to passage amid the lack of progress on a new six-year federal
transport bill.

Still, that continued reliance on extensions
of existing transportation law -- which have necessitated a transfer of
more than $30 billion from the general Treasury to the highway trust
fund since 2008 -- gave LaHood ammunition against Bond and Murray's
complaint that road users would be ceding that $200 million in highway
money to the sustainability office.

When lawmakers pay for transport programs from the general Treasury, LaHood said, "part of that money comes ... from all
the taxpayers -- who, in some instances, want something other than
roads. I have to put that on the record."

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