Ray LaHood was, surprisingly, the right man for the job

February 12, 2013

Urbanists were excited by President Obama’s election in 2008, as it heralded the first time in a century that a president would come from a major city. And Obama was not just a resident of Chicago, he had worked as a community organizer. On the campaign trail he promised groups such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors that – after years of neglect under Republicans – his tenure would feature federal cooperation with, and attention to, cities.

So they were dismayed when Obama picked Ray LaHood, a Republican congressman from Peoria, Illinois, for Secretary of Transportation. It appeared that Obama had subjugated urban interests to his desire to appear bipartisan.

That was especially worrisome because federal transportation policy was overdue for a change. Democrats, and a handful of Northern Republicans, are becoming concerned about the nation’s massive infrastructure deficit, and are calling for a transportation policy envisioning bolder solutions. As the price of gasoline rises, climate change wreaks more havoc, and the millennial generation returns to the cities that their parents forsook, there is an increasing demand for alternatives to new highways, such as bicycle lanes, sidewalks, trains and buses. Urban policy wonks feared that LaHood ‑ who announced his retirement earlier this month ‑ would not promote these views.

Yet upon news of his resignation, LaHood received widespread praise from environmental and alternative transportation advocates, from the Sierra Club to Bike Portland. It turned out that LaHood, despite having no known prior interest or expertise in the subject, became a strong advocate for a greener, more urban future. Ironically, he was especially well suited to that task precisely because he is a Republican from the Heartland, rather than a big-city Democrat.

LaHood changed federal transportation policy primarily through two efforts: his enthusiastic participation in furthering sustainability and his oversight of an incentive-rich transportation grants program.

The first major success was LaHood’s support of President Obama’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which coordinates the administration’s sustainability agenda across federal agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation work together to ensure that their efforts maximize economic and environmental efficiency. For example, officials at HUD can review applications for DOT grants to help assess whether a proposal will link affordable housing to transportation. This cooperation may sound unremarkable, but it represents a paradigm shift. Historically, federal agencies have been notoriously “siloed,” working separately or even toward conflicting goals.
LaHood’s presence was particularly valuable as it lent bipartisan credibility to what was, inevitably, attacked by some Republicans as covert anti-suburban social engineering. LaHood presented smart growth principles as simple, even conservative, common sense: getting more value for the government’s dollar, reducing commuting costs and giving people transportation choices from which they can freely choose.

Within DOT, LaHood introduced the Livability Initiative as a rubric for managing discretionary funds. There were six livability principles – such as investing in existing communities to reduce sprawl that destroys the rural landscape – but they could all be summarized in this pithy definition of a livable community from LaHood: “A community where if people don’t want an automobile, they don’t have to have one.”

How do you achieve that? As LaHood repeatedly explained, you have to give people options. You have to build sidewalks and bike lanes, so they can go short distances safely without a car. And you have to support trains and buses for longer trips. Most crucially, all this must be done strategically, so that the transportation infrastructure connects where people live to where they work and shop. To make that vision a reality, DOT infused its discretionary grant programs with the Livability Initiative’s values.

Unfortunately, funding for transportation infrastructure is severely constrained, as the gasoline tax that supports it has not been increased, even to keep pace with inflation, since 1993. And most of its funds go to state and local governments through rigid formulas.

The Obama administration secured additional temporary funding in 2009’s Recovery Act. LaHood distributed a chunk of that through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) discretionary grant program, and DOT has continued to receive funding for TIGER in the years since. Through TIGER, LaHood demonstrated what a more sophisticated, comprehensive transportation funding approach would look like. TIGER grants are awarded competitively. As Politico recently explained, “DOT created detailed cost-benefit studies and evaluated aspects like project readiness, public usefulness and economic competitiveness. The awards were billed as earned rights — no earmarks, no state-funded formulas. Mayors, government experts and some transportation advocates have hailed the grants for rewarding innovation rather than population.” The DOT metrics value important objectives, such as revitalizing underused transit hubs or building “complete streets” that include sidewalks and bike lanes, that are overlooked by the old formulas.

LaHood revolutionized the transportation secretary’s role. Rather than being a mere manager, he showed that the Transportation Department can entice communities to pursue a more integrated, forward-looking built environment. As the era of cheap oil comes to an end, and as the epidemic of obesity and the results of climate change keep worsening, this transformation is long overdue. Whoever replaces LaHood is likely to adopt the same policies, but the legacy will be his.

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood talks about an agreement to build a new public bridge between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Canada during a news conference in Windsor Canada June 15, 2012.  REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

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