These are exciting times; a new "green dream team" in Washington; Billions of dollars to be invested in infrastructure. In this new world one of the most important positions will be the Secretary of Transportation, overseeing investment in rail, technology, alternative fuels, and yes, roads.
And who is up for this position? Ray LaHood of Peoria, also home of Caterpillar, one of the world's largest manufacturers of road building equipment and technology. And when you look under LaHood, you find he's Cat-Powered.
Caterpillar was not only the biggest contributor to his last campaign in 2006, but Peoria is a company town, and one can't help think that when it comes to infrastructure, what plays in Peoria is roadbuilding.
He is also of the "drill, baby, drill" school of energy policy, which doesn't bode well when thinking about alternative energy for transportation. He wrote to a constituent in 2007:
Several areas in the country offer opportunities worth exploring to increase domestic petroleum production, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), other areas in Alaska, the Rocky Mountain region, and along the continental shelf. The technology exists where we can safely extract oil and natural gas from these areas and not adversely affect the local and regional environment.
To his credit, he did vote to expand passenger rail service and supported a bill to promote increased public transportation. But he has no experience in transportation policy. Alex Steffen points out that the Department of Transportation-
has authority, or at least influence, over all sorts of important transportation policies, including things like aviation standards, shipping and trucking, insurance rules, road construction standards. Want complete streets, pay-as-you-go car insurance or high speed interstate rail connections? DOT will have a hand in deciding whether you get them.
It also sets mileage and safety standards for cars. Want a plug-in car in every smart garage, connected by a renewables-friendly smart grid? DOT will play a critical role in deciding whether, when and how plug-in cars and electric car infrastructure happens.
It oversees all of the Federal government's research programs. Want the groundwork done on new policies and technologies? DOT is the one handing out the research dollars.
But even more importantly, Transportation is about to play a key role in handing out hundreds of billions of dollars over the next few years. Without the right kind of progressive, knowledgeable leadership, the stimulus package, the bailout and the new transportation bill will together fund the largest single step backwards the U.S. transportation system has taken since the end of World War Two: a massive investment in new highways, suburban sprawl and minimally more efficient, taxpayer-subsidized new cars.
Somehow, putting all of this in the hands of the Congressman from Caterpillar doesn't make a lot of sense.
Others on Ray Lahood:
Worldchanging: Ray LaHood and Changing our Thinking About Transportation
Grist: Ray, it ain't so
Huffington Post: Ray LaHood at Transportation, What is Obama Thinking?