Obama's Transportation Secretary: America is One Big Pothole

ray lahood nytimes photo

Image via The New York Times.

"I think we're doing great things right now," says Ray LaHood, the Obama Administration's Secretary of Transportation. A former Republican Congressman from Illinois, many advocates of sustainable transport were initially unsure what to make of his appointment. Several months later, LaHood is shaping up to become one of the administration’s more activist figures.Secretary LaHood, who oversees a $70 billion budget, along with some $50 billion in stimulus funds, admits that the United States' transportation systems are a long way from sustainability. "We've spent three decades building an interstate system," he told US News & World Report recently. "We've put almost all of our resources into the interstate system."

The new administration, however, appears to be breaking with America's highway-loving tradition, bringing in a new set of priorities including high-speed rail, building more efficient cars and creating "livable communities."

Back to the One-Car Garage

In a June 12 interview published in US News & World Report, LaHood said that the USDOT is in a "transformational" moment right now:

This is a transformational president, and the department is following the president's lead. People haven't really been thinking about these things. They have been thinking about how to build roads, how to build interstates, how to build bridges. People now are thinking differently about where they want to live, how they want to live, and how they want to be able to get around their communities.

In another interview, published in The New York Times, LaHood said he envisions a shift from the three-car garages of today back to the one-car garage, as Americans begin to live in communities where they are less dependent on their cars:

What we’ve talked about is getting to a concept that we call livable communities, where people don’t have to get in a car every day. You can use light rail, you can use buses, you can use walking paths, you can use your bike.

Integrated Urban Planning

In order to make that happen, LaHood's Department of Transportation wants every metropolitan area in the country to conduct "integrated housing, transportation, and land use planning." As the Natural Resources Defense Council's Kaid Benfield notes on the NRDC's blog Switchboard, this by itself is an almost revolutionary shift.

Although it sounds like a no-brainer, in reality transportation, housing policy (including affordable housing) and land use issues are rarely addressed in an integrated fashion. The results of this disjointed approach to planning can be seen in every American city.

In another groudbreaking move, a three-way partnership has been created between LaHood's DOT, the Environmental Protection Agency and HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The goal of the partnership is to use the three agencies' collective influence and budgets to build more equitable and sustainable communities, with cheaper, more efficient transportation and more affordable and walkable neighborhoods.

All of this adds up to a real sea change in the way the US government deals with transportation issues.

New Budgets for Transportation

Meanwhile, the details of a new transportation bill, which would transform the way the government budgets transportation projects, have just been released. Congressman James Oberstar's Surface Transportation Authorization Act would begin to shift funds from highways to mass transit, allocate a massive $50 billion for high-speed rail, sketch out a detailed vision for a new national transportation system and establish a National Infrastructure Bank.

However, for the moment anyway, it appears that such a serious legislative overhaul will have to wait. Apparently preferring to save its political leverage for the coming battles over health care and climate legislation, the Obama Administration is likely to support extending existing transportation legislation for another year and a half - effectively pushing off the new bill until then.

For more updates, check out Secretary of Transporation LaHood's official blog, appropriately named The Fast Lane, as well as Yonah Freemark's comprehensive blog The Transport Politic.

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