Ray LaHood is known for his disarming candor — his recent admission that he’s not "that great a transportation person" being a case in point — and those qualities were on vivid display today as the Transportation Secretary delivered an address to the National Press Club.
LaHood’s speech was aimed at countering a recent flurry of media coverage that questioned the potential for success, as well as the spend-out rate, of the White House’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan. But his feistiest pushback ended up coming in response to the George Will column that already has sparked a debate challenge from Portland’s local congressman.
Asked if his emphasis on livable communities was, as Will’s column argued, a veiled effort to "make driving more torturous" and "coerce people out of their cars," LaHood was unbowed.
"It is a way to coerce people out of their cars," he said, observing that few people enjoy spending an hour behind the wheel to travel to work or run an errand. While every community cannot be redesigned to coax more residents onto transit or bikes, he added, the encouragement of those opportunities is important.
"The only person I’ve heard object to this is George Will," LaHood said. Pressed again to answer conservative critics who see the hand of Big Government in his agenda, the former Republican congressman quipped: "About everything we do around here is government intrusion in people’s lives."
But LaHood didn’t stop there. He went on to address local transit agency budgets, how to fund the next six-year federal transportation bill and other pressing questions.
It was already pretty apparent to Washingtonians that the Obama administration would not support an increase in the gas tax, nor introduce a tax on vehicle miled traveled (VMT), in order to pay for the upcoming federal transportation bill. Still, LaHood put the final nail in the coffin, saying: "Now is not a very good time to be talking about raising taxes … this administration is not going to be promoting an increase in the gas tax."
LaHood took a more progressive line when it comes to state and local transit agencies that are struggling to pay their bills despite increased service demands. Current rules prohibit states and localities from using federal money to pay for operating costs, trapping agencies like New York’s MTA in a punishing deficit cycle, but LaHood said that needs to change.
"It’s a little silly to provide all this [federal] money for buses if [states and cities] can’t hire drivers," he said. "I’m certainly open-minded about the ability for transit districts, particularly during times like this, to use some of their money for operating."
The transportation chief was less open about providing help for the trucking industry, which has been hit hard by the recession, and airlines that are worried about high-speed rail cutting into their business. Asked about the likelihood of federal help for both industries, LaHood was noncommittal.