Transpo Sec Rumor Mill: Rep. Ray LaHood the Leading Candidate

lahood.jpgPhoto: Wikipedia

The Hill is reporting that Illinois Representative Ray LaHood, described as a centrist Republican, is in talks with the Obama team about taking a Cabinet post, most likely as Secretary of Transportation. The official announcement could be made as early as Friday.

If LaHood is chosen, it would come as something of a surprise, as his name has so far escaped widely circulated short lists for the position. His district includes Peoria and Springfield, and he did not seek re-election this year. His recent voting record indicates a willingness to buck the party line on transportation measures: This year he supported the Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act and the Passenger Rail Investment Act. We’ll have more on this potential selection as the story develops.

  • Transit Worker

    Well, his district has no rail transit and is primarily a rural area with Springfield, IL and (gulp) Peoria being the “big cities.”

    Sorry, with people like Jim Oberstar and Earl Blumenauer out there, or J. Sadik-Kahn, this is not encouraging.

  • James

    Look, not to sound like a reactionary here, but given the pool of great candidates like JSK and Blumenauer out there for this post, you have got to be freaking kidding me. I checked out this guy’s accomplishments on Wikipedia and they do not inspire confidence. We need someone with substantive experience and this guy is not it.

    Obama can do better than this guy. He HAS to do better than this guy.

  • J. Mork

    “Status quo we can believe in.”

  • Jeffrey Hymen

    Yeah, but I hear he’s got a greater working relationship with Adolfo Carrion.

  • League of Conservation Voters scored him at 46 percent:

    Seems like a very mixed bag which means we won’t see the change we’re looking for. I knew Blumenauer was too good to be true but had high hopes for Oberstar.

    I’ll try to put on my “let’s wait and see” hat but there isn’t much to be optimistic about here.

  • Martin

    please god no, please no token republican for this spot. this is important. we need somebody who can get things done and who has guts, and who’s been fighting for non-auto transportation for a long time.

  • jmc

    I told you so! You should never have trusted this schmuck Obama, he pulled a big con on progressives. This is exactly what he did when he became president of Harvard law review.

  • FWIW, the linked article says he’s in discussions for a cabinet position and that Transpo is most likely the one that he’s in discussions for, not that he’s the most likely candidate to be the Transpo secretary.

    That being said, he doesn’t seem like a great choice.

  • fdr

    Transportation is pretty much the only Cabinet position left.

  • oscar

    not liking some of obama’s picks
    trying too hard for the “team of rivals” crap…and way to heavy on illinois pols

  • I’m really starting to wonder where Obama stands on environmental issues after his picks for Interior, Agriculture and now Transportation. Perhaps he is not that well-informed on these issues, or he is just getting bad advice.

  • oscar

    i agree DianaD
    that agriculture pick is particularly infuriating

  • Mick F

    Why is this guy being considered for any cabinet position? Does Obama look like a statesman cause he picked some GOP House hack from Peoria? Has anyone done a scan to see if he is hooked into the highway lobby or big infrastructure contractors? Truly dismal if he gets DOT instead of Blumenaur or Oberstar or about a thousand other people. WTF

  • fdr

    Vilsack was a big Clinton supporter. Probably another contract for Hillary.

  • I don’t care who he is. I care what he does.

    Please, Santa, let us keep JSK.

  • Mr. Socko

    Did Obama win or Dan Quayle?

    (Mick F. call me.)

  • Respect the Past

    Political contributions, etc…

    Also, I’m not seeing a 46 score for him on League of Conservation Voters; I’m seeing a 23. In comparison, McCain scored in the 40s, Hillary in the high 80s and Barack and Biden in the 90s.

  • fdr

    How about JSK for Senator? Then Bloomberg can make Caroline DOT Commissioner.

  • Sam

    Token Republican for Transportation?

    Might as well be an auto industry bailout.

  • LCV gave him a 23% in 2006 – look at 2008 for the 46. Either way, he’s never surpassed 50.

    Also, Progress Illinois has some more information about LaHood’s thoughts on transit:

  • Matt

    Horrible, horrible news.

    I guess Dick Cheney was busy, huh?

  • Patrick

    He seems to have a good reputation with the local bike groups (having gotten an award during the 2004 National Bike Summit for supporting Transportation Enhancements) and he was a co-sponsor of the Bike Commuter tax benefit bill (1 of 5 in the 109th Congress).

    I’m not saying that he’s a good pick, I would have been very excited about Blumenauer, Sadik-Khan, and Canby, but I’m interested in finding out from other folks what they know about him.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Denied expectations are such a strong motivator. Its a very conservative country that rose above its fears to elect a black man during an extreme economic crisis. LaHood might even be left of center. And, Peoria isn’t as rural as this blog implies, it is very industrial, home of the sainted Richard Pryor and the Caterpillar World Headquarters. Of course the miles and miles of interstate rippling through the black loam sort of determine its environmental character. Each clover leaf wastes a square mile of the best tillable farm soil in the world. Peoria a city by any American standards and Springfield is the state capital. There are housing projects, crack houses and lots of guns. Bikes, schmikes.

    And, you never know how a guy will do a job once he is released from the need to get re-elected. Transportation, like defense, is usually a soft spot for “bipartisanism” (whatever the fuck that means). Mineta Sec of Trans for most of Bushes regime. To us Transportation mean livable streets and new urbanism but the reality is that it is equal parts freight and industry. Industrial meltdown is the prime issue in the midwest, an issue our hero Bloomberg thinks is natural. Its easy to look green by eliminating industry and converting it to real estate but when you turn around and 1/3 of the population have no jobs its another story.

  • A collection of some of the scant info available:

    “I think if we’re going to have a pot of money where we subsidize airlines and we subsidize the funding of highways, that we certainly ought to continue to subsidize Amtrak,” LaHood said.

    He said, “I don’t think we can afford at this point, with the kind of deficits we’re running,” to be talking about high-speed rail.

    I’m pretty sure I’m disappointed with this pick, but I don’t disagree with his 2004 comments on HSR. Americans talk about HSR the way New York motorists talk about better subways. If only everything were perfect, you know, then they would deign to take a train. Meanwhile the subways serve most of the city’s population and standard trains serve the northeast corridor better than airplanes. Not that I don’t want nicer and faster subways and trains, I absolutely do and want to pay for them too, but I think we get there by building up on a better managed system with the equipment and tracks that we have, as every country with HSR has done for the past fifty years. Only recently did France’s ass-kicking TGV network reach most corners of the country; the expensive track upgrades happened over decades, in tandem with provisional upgrades to old equipment and tracks in a measured, frenchy way. Americans screaming “we should build some HSR tooooo” are ignorant of the investment and patience required, and the fact that existing tracks and equipment could serve many routes far better than they do—and far better than airplanes or cars—if properly scheduled, with all tracks owned by Amtrak or a friendly government agency. You could speculate that jumping into HSR without learning to better regulate standard rail would be a tremendous waste of resources, but you don’t have to because we already proved that with Acela.

    Not that this guy has a clue either, from available evidence, but skepticism of pie in the sky HSR projects coupled with support for traditional Amtrak isn’t a negative in my book.

  • bikesnotcars

    I think a good pick overall. Oberstar would be the obvious choice, but since he’s the powerful chair of the Transportation Committe he’s in the perfect spot right now to be hugely influential (more influential than Secretary of Transportation, frankly). Love Blumenauer, but has he been effective pushing the agenda?
    This guys is a Republican who can pull his fellow R’s to his side, pro-bike, pro-walk. Could have been someone much much worse. Pragmatically I think he will get things done for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit.

  • Doc, did you see this quote too?

    “People in rural Illinois are not for high-speed rail… They do not want a train traveling 120, 125, 150 miles per hour through the rural areas, and I support them on that.” -Rep. Ray LaHood

    How exactly is it possible to have HSR anywhere without running it through a rural area? HSR cannot exit solely in urban areas – it is an intervity transportation system or it is nothing. This comment doesn’t make any sense and makes me question that Rep. LaHood has a clue about transportation policy.

    Ray LaHood = status quo
    Barack Obama = huge huge huge disappointment already

  • jmc

    “Change” for transit… lots of change… a sack of pennies!

    Now I know where I remember him from — he held the impeachment vote for Clinton.

    I am sure he has really progressive transportation policies, and he knows transit very well. Otherwise, why would Obama have picked him?

    I just pray to Obama and all the lesser gods that this Republican from Peoria takes the Metro to the Capitol. That way I will know that he has stood on a platform and wished for more trains, or endured a breakdown, and will recognize that transit systems are important.

  • Alex

    I am a transportation professional, and was looking for some sort of progressiveness on this pick. What a total waste. Rep. LaHood doesn’t have ONE IOTA of transportation experience. He didn’t serve on a single transportation-related committee while in Congress. He has never worked for or been appointed to a single transportation-related post.

    The President-elect just dumped one of his pals on this very important post. I want my campaign contribution back!

  • “Doc, did you see this quote too?”

    I did, Spence, and it is ignorant. But do HSR advocates think the popular will is there to cut farms in half today, as must absolutely be done? We have to get existing lines running better, and get Americans riding them, before money spent on HSR can do any good. Otherwise it is an endless study, to be laughed out of the legislature by people whose constituents haven’t ridden a train in their lives. Both sides of the abstract HSR debate are lacking in the seriousness appropriate to our domestic transportation predicament.

  • Well, I disagree. I think we’re ready for HSR. Californians just voted with their pocketbooks to support a $45 billion investment in HSR. It is certainly controversial, and it’s going to cut through a pristine state park and displace homes and cost a lot of money, but I think a majority of people are beginning to recognize that it is vitally important and is justifiably worth the expense.

    Expanded and enhanced public transit is similarly necessary. So are safe streets for pedestrians and cyclists. Maybe Obama agrees with us on all of these issues, and maybe Rep. LaHood is willing to carry the water on all of these issues that he knows so little about and never or weakly advocated previously, but that’s one heck of a leap of faith isn’t it?

    Are moderates and Republicans more likely to embrace HSR and new urbanist transportation and land use policies if it they are proposed by a Republican cabinet official who is already well-known around Washington? Or are we dreaming to think that Obama is going to offer up anything other than more of the same? If you ask me, it sure seems likely that we’re going to see lots of “compromises” when it comes to Obama’s “progressive” agenda.

    The Rick Warren news today, coming in the same news cycle as this, really plummeted my previously hesitant expectations for the Obama administration. Clinton part two seems like what’s in store.

  • Nathanael Nerode

    “But do HSR advocates think the popular will is there to cut farms in half today, as must absolutely be done? ”

    To be clear about this, there are several crucial routes on which “higher-speed rail” (110 mph, for instance) could be built without cutting farms in half.

    Chicago-New York is one of them. The old alignments are VERY straight for VERY long distances, and also VERY wide and VERY flat from Chicago to Cleveland and on the NYC route from there to Albany.

    In many places, we simply need to replace bridges and install new track and overhead wires.

    “We have to get existing lines running better, and get Americans riding them, before money spent on HSR ”

    MWHSR’s approach is to develop HSR *by* upgrading existing routes, and it’s the correct approach. For example, a dedicated fast, straight passenger line from Chicago Union Station to Indiana — a section currently stuck at 35 mph, but suitable for much higher speeds most of the way — would substantially improve a whole bunch of existing routes, and serve as the final approach for any future high-speed line. So I don’t see the conflict.

  • JK

    High speed rail is not the sustainable transportation Holy Grail. It is mainly a way of getting people out of airplanes. It also drops people off in center cities instead of airports, which is very good. But it should not be near the top priority for sustainable transportation types. This country could spend hundreds of billions on high speed rail and remain completely car dependent. Here in NY, you could put HSR between Albany and NYC and from a livable streets perspective, achieve what? Add a stop in Kingston or Poughkeepsie and convert those into new bedroom suburbs for NY. High speed rail is good, but neither a necessary or sufficient advance for creating more walkable communities and helping people get out of their cars. (I’d put freight rail into NYC/LI as higher priority than HSR to Albany)

  • “there are several crucial routes on which ‘higher-speed rail’ (110 mph, for instance) could be built without cutting farms in half ”

    110 mph is not all that inspiring, but okay. My opinion, as I expressed before I ever heard of LaHood, is that rail experience and advocacy are the most important qualities for the job. LaHood has none of the former and maybe a tiny bit of the latter. He’s lame, case closed.

    But I won’t hold it against anyone for being skeptical of American “high-speed” rail concept when we are running trains at 35 mph that could easily go double that speed. There is no conflict between HSR and rail because railroads are real things and HSR is a marketing label designed to appease Americans that forswore trains and don’t want to admit it was a mistake to. It’s particularly rich that other countries keep speeding all of their trains such that what we’ve decided to call HSR is attainable by their non-pointy, second-tier trainsets (max 200 kph / 124 mph). But since Americans are so superficially obsessed with “bullet” trains, perhaps we should buy one from a Japanese museum, toot it around at 60 mph, and be done with it.

  • Why are you guys so anti-HSR?

    HSR is not a silver bullet to solve all of the world’s problems, but no one said it was, and no such thing exists.

    HSR, powered by 100% clean, renewable electricity is technologically feasible and affordable. It could easily replace mid-range air travel with a much more environmentally friendly travel mode for passengers and cargo. It already exists in countless countries around the world – there’s no need to poo-poo it like it’s some sort of fantasy. What is the reason for your negativity?

    As far as why HSR is an important consideration for the position of Transpo Secretary, this is because HSR and rail in general require a heavy capital investment up front. HSR is not possible without government investment and the kind of resources needed are too great to be solely funded by state or local government. HSR requires a strong mix of federal dollars. Having a neanderthal Transpo Sec sets up a huge roadblock to making these kind of investments.

  • Compare this plain definition:
    Une ligne à grande vitesse, ou LGV, est une ligne ferroviaire construite spécialement pour permettre la circulation de trains à grande vitesse, initialement au-dessus de 200 km/h, aujourd’hui à partir de 220 km/h.à_grande_vitesse

    To this mealy nonsense:
    High-speed rail is a type of passenger rail transport that operates significantly faster than the normal speed of rail traffic. Specific definitions include 200 km/h (125 mph) and faster — depending on whether the track is upgraded or new — by the European Union, and above 90 mph (145 km/h) by the United States Federal Railroad Administration, but there is no single standard, and lower speeds can be required by local constraints.

    I’m certainly not against trains going 220 kph in this country like in twelve others (that’s right, I counted), it’s American HSR advocacy I have a problem with. It is unnecessarily narrow (as much at can be, with such a vague definition), it is insufficiently concerned with reality, and it is, well, annoying. No train network is “affordable”; all are expensive and lengthy undertakings, but worth every penny. Saying that all of your imagined network’s electricity comes from renewable sources is great, but that multiplies its operating cost by yet another number. These fanciful musings do not make a convincing case for the national investment in rail that we require.

    And the last thing we need are a half dozen disconnected rail networks starting with one in California, nor do we don’t need a rolling museum of train service operating at 1950s speeds with modern airline cabin service, the worst of all worlds. If Amtrak is irredeemable, let’s gut it and start over. Or fund and fix Amtrak. But don’t pretend like Amtrak and its shortcomings are just not there—or your some-kind-of-rail advocacy will be poo-pooed without mercy.

  • Doc, I’m new here so maybe I don’t know your personality yet, but you seem awfully bitter.

    Check out the California HSR blog ( I’ve been reading it for a while and the proposals and discussion there are not like anything you can describe.

    The CHSRA (California HSR Authority) recently completed a study of the feasibility of powering their trains with 100% renewable energy and they calculated that doing so would add only modestly to fare charges ( They then voted to make this part of their program. It was that easy – no need to believe that these things are imaginary or impossible to achieve. HSR technology btw has many of the same features as a hybrid automobile engine in that energy that is used by a train to bring it up to speed is then returned to the network by the braking system when it slows down or stops, so it’s a much more efficient use of energy besides being electrically powered and not combustion-based.

    Another factoid you may not be aware of, the CHSRA projects that their lines will be very profitable to operate once they are built – the line between SF and LA is projected to bring in over $1 billion annually (see pg 4: Imagine having a public transportations sytem (it will be owned by the state but privately built, operated and maintained) that not only is clean, efficient, and very popular (most HSR lines around the world control 50% or greater share of marketshare compared to air travel), but also a strong revenue generator.

    We are not limited by failures of the past, only by our own ambition and ability to promote the kind of change that we want to see. I suspect that California is not the only region of the U.S. that is ripe for this kind of investment, but it’s much easier to poke holes in other people’s ideas than to propose something better.

  • “it’s much easier to poke holes in other people’s ideas than to propose something better.”

    Is it? I find critical thinking to be much rarer than ideas. Anyway, effective problem solving requires both. I have proposed an idea (too boring/practical to qualify?), that we invest in and speed the train system that we have with a long-term aim of laying 220 kph+ tracks, once we’re using existing infrastructure to its full potential and have restored public appreciation for trains. That we solve funding conflicts honestly by building trust over time, rather than shoving costs into the future with bonds and optimistic projections. That we look at the benefits collectively, speed a dozen routes for the cost of building one if possible. That we mend the failure of the present (!) that Amtrak represents, learn from it, fix federal regulations holding all trains back, and help those unfussy riders that aren’t holding out for 220 kph.

    This discussion has only heightened my sense that HSR advocates are the ones driving their cars between cities, frequent flying their Southwest airlines, making unreasonable demands and relegating to non-person status anyone that settles for the pathetic trains we have. I mean, I’m not eager to continue this discussion, but I am curious since you are new here. Do you live in CA, NY, somewhere else? Have you ever ridden a train, here, abroad, both? Do you drive, locally and in the region? Me, I live in New York, no car, use the subway and ride a bicycle to work, have taken Amtrak three or four times, regional commuter rail plenty, the TGV probably ten times, and all other kinds of non-fast French trains much more than that. I fly to Europe every other year. I regretfully fly to Georgia once a year, but this year I am actually taking Amtrak back to NYC just to see how terrible it is. That’s not meant to be a statement of virtue, but of experience that has told me that good things are better, but they also cost more. What is your experience? I feel like, not particularly you Spence but American HSR advocates in general, like I’m arguing with the Princess and the Pea, and the Princess doesn’t even know anything about beds.


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