A NEW SERIES: ONE II ONE WITH SOME OF THE MOST INTERESTING PEOPLE IN THE BUSINESS
Talks to Editor In Chief John Latta
America’s 16th Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was a congressional staffer for 17 years and a member of the House for 14 as an Illinois Republican. He served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Appropriations committees. He was Chief of Staff to U.S. Congressman Robert Michel and District Administrative Assistant to Congressman Thomas Railsback. He also served in the Illinois State Legislature. LaHood is a former junior high school teacher, director of the Rock Island County Youth Services Bureau and chief planner for the Bi-States Metropolitan Planning Commission in Illinois.
I know one of things you are most passionate about is distracted driving?
We were at a meeting in Illinois yesterday where there were over 300 people focusing on distracted driving. Two years ago, that wouldn’t have happened. Every American owns some sort of texting device or a phone… people think they can use them wherever they are at, anytime any place, including in churches, funerals, weddings and you know people have just developed behind the wheel of a car very dangerous behavior… we’ve called it an epidemic … We’ve had two or three insurance companies, Allstate, Nationwide and now State Farm, really stepping up providing money and also providing the kind of leadership to begin to persuade their policy holders that they shouldn’t be texting and driving and using cell phones and driving. So, you know, we’re coming along, but we have a long way to go.
Why such a personal interest?
I have a bully pulpit when it comes to safety… and I use it …We have also given some grants, including two grants, Hartford, Connecticut, and Syracuse, New York of $200,000 each matched by $100,000 from the states … they paid police to sit on street corners and write tickets to people who were on their cell phones or texting and driving. And they’ve written thousands of tickets and distracted driving has come down. We believe good laws and good enforcement, and people taking personal responsibility for putting their cell phones and texting devices in the glove compartment, will save a lot of lives.
Is it also a case that if you don’t do this now, it will be much harder to change in future?
That’s absolutely right. I’ve met with every CEO of every car company. The problem is dangerous habits that people have, but where they do it is also a problem. They do it in automobiles and car manufacturers are putting more distractions in cars than less…We are doing a study right now on the cognitive effects of Bluetooth, hands-free, GPS, all of these things that I believe are cognitive distractions. How much? We’re trying to find out.
If people go to www.distraction.gov they can see some of the heartbreaking stories … We can talk about statistics all day and all night but when you see people talking about it, parents talking about losing their children, children talking about losing their parents… it’s heartbreaking. Heartbreaking. And you know it could be prevented! It’s pretty simple! We appreciate these families stepping forward. It’s not easy to tell their stories.
Reauthorization. When and how much?
We’re working with Congress. There were members of Congress that introduced bills last time and we hope that they will again this time. …But the direct answer is that I hope Congress will pass a bill this year.
Transportation has always been considered a bipartisan issue here in Washington. Is it still bipartisan?
Absolutely. The one thing around this town that is bipartisan is transportation. It always has been and always will be, mainly I think because people look at transportation as an opportunity to put friends and neighbors to work. A transportation bill is a jobs bill… good paying jobs. Even people who came here sort of under the banner of the Tea Party to make their reductions… what I have told people is you can pay some money against the debt and deficit, but you can also have transportation priorities. You can do both….
The stumbling block then is…?
Finding the money.
Is it doable?
Absolutely. We have to… we have to get our infrastructure in a state of good repair. It’s very doable. It’s one way can really jump-start our economy.
Our infrastructure: is there some point where we begin losing the race? Are states losing ground on infrastructure?
We have reached a very critical time in our country in terms of state of good repair for our infrastructure. We have reached a very critical moment in many states where they have come to the point where they really need to address infrastructure needs otherwise they will be behind the curve in terms of their ability to keep state of good repair for roads and bridges. This is the moment. It really is. This year is the moment to pass a bill.
Livability is another administration priority. Will it change the way we do things?
Absolutely. Over the last two years through the use of our TIGER program… we invested in freight rail …and ports and bridges…, but we also invested in the kind of transportation many Americans are looking for: walking paths, biking paths, street cars, light rail, more transit. People want to be able to live in communities that offer many different options for transportation. Many communities now are going back to streetcars. It’s kind of like going back to the future if you will. …So, it’s streetcars, light rail, transit, more busses, more clean-burning busses, more green busses.
It’s really an integration model then?
It really is. The silos have been broken down at DOT, I’m happy to announce. We have an integrated approach here. I’ve been to the Union Station in Minneapolis and Denver…these will become hubs for multi-modal transportation. You can ride a bike there, you could walk there, take a bus there, take a light rail there, you might be able to take a streetcar there – integrating transportation so that it really becomes multi-modal.
Former T&I committee Chairman Oberstar liked to say different groups in DOT worked without talking to each other.
Those days are gone. Under this administration the silos are gone, there’s total integration of transportation and that really came about through the use of our Stimulus money …every morning everybody got around the table not in their own individual little offices… talking about how do we cut bureacucracy, how do we cut red tape, how do we get $48 billion out the door, and we did it. And no bad stories, no earmarks, no boondoggles, no sweetheart deals, no, you know, any kind of controversy; it was done the way it was supposed to be done.
Just sitting around a table talking, it’s very simple.
It’s not too complicated.
And there was a consensus, I think, that without it the situation would have been much worse.
You would have had [construction] unemployment at 70 percent or 80 percent. Lookit, 65,000 people went to work in 15,000 [projects].
Do you see a future where highway and bridge contracts will be part of integrated projects?
Absolutely. I have a call this afternoon with two governors, one from Washington one from Oregon, they’re building a river crossing across the Columbia River. It will be funded with tolls, state money, federal money; there’ll be a bike path across the bridge, there’ll be a light rail system across the bridge. This is a totally integrated project with almost every form of transportation. You can walk across, bike across, take a light rail, drive a car. There’s freight rail, too. And it’s a pool of funding; it doesn’t just come from highways. It comes from many different places… it’s a classic case where you break down the silos, get everybody around the table and you put the project together.
How do you approach lowering congestion?
I think the approach is the multi-modal approach, the integrated approach. The idea that you don’t just solve congestion by building another road. You build other forms of transportation so you get people out of their cars, you get cars off the road…more capacity creates more congestion.
You are a Republican in a Democratic Administration.
This is a great privilege for me to be able to serve in this administration… I consider this administration one of the most historic that I have ever watched in my 35 years of public service. I feel like I have a front row seat on watching history and a front row seat on making a little history. The White House has given us the kind of latitude to … be able to build the next generation of transportation which is high-speed rail…not for our generation but for the next generation. We can do what the last generation did for us when they built an interstate system.
Is this turning point?
Exactly, it’s a turning point, it’s transformational. Presidents who have big bold visions almost always have the opportunity to get things done I think President Obama’s transportation legacy – he’ll have many legacies – but his transportation legacy will be high-speed rail… I’m viewed as a bipartisan person and we said earlier there’s nothing partisan about transportation.
Will the way we let contracts for road and bridge change?
It will change…we’ve taken 50 programs, 50, and compacted them into five. Our goal is to cut red tape, to expedite the way that we award money, to alleviate the kind of headaches and anxiety that’s been created around here by a huge bureaucracy, by reducing it, and by speeding up the time within which someone can have an award. We proved that we could so that with our Stimulus money…I think people were astounded.
So the game changer then is a decrease in those bureaucratic procedures that slow things down?
That’s correct. We’re going to do things by the book, we’re going to make sure things are done correctly, but we can do it quicker just by talking to one another and eliminating some bureaucracy.
Will you be able to help states pull down some of their own silos?
….we’ve been able to move quickly and it has enabled them to move quickly. I think some of them have already done it.
They were asked to move quickly.
They were. Not only pull, a plan off the shelf, but dust it off and get it to us, everything done, Ts crossed Is dotted, done.
Is the Stimulus then a model?
The Stimulus was a harbinger. It set a very high bar for reducing red tape, reducing bureaucracy, doing things correctly, doing them by the book, but getting the money out the door.
High-speed rail is something obviously you are dedicated to.
It’s an essential partner in the integrated plan. High-speed rail is coming to America. There’s no turning back. We will not be dissuaded by two or three critics. We will not be dissuaded by two or three people. There are far more people – the majority of Americans want high-speed rail… there’s a pent-up demand in America for high-speed rail. We’re not going back. We’re on our way. Our vision, the President’s vision, connect 80 percent of America in the next 25 years. That’s half the time it took to build the interstate [system]
And building it?
We need our friends in freight rail … but we also want to take foreign investors, people who have built train sets and rail infrastructure in Europe and Asia … to invest in America: only two things – hire American workers and use American facilities.
Will it pay for itself ?
I think at this point we’re focusing more on trying to get the infrastructure in place. I’m one of those that believes if you build it they will come …This is a hard economic time right now and so it does make it difficult to always have everything paid for by the users…
Does high-speed rail create enough jobs?
Over 25 years it will create thousands and thousands of jobs…, hopefully taking some shuttered industrial plants and opening them with American workers…take laid off auto workers, a laid off steel worker, maybe give them a little retraining…