A Transportation Secretary Who’s Hard to Believe In

On Monday, Obama announced his "green dream team." Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wasn’t there.

We’ve been calling around to Congressional staffers, advocates and insiders to get a better sense of what Obama’s appointment of Ray LaHood as transportation secretary means for those pushing for sustainable transport, smart growth, livable streets. While no one is giving up hope on the Obama administration a month before the inauguration, the general consensus is pretty clear. As one insider summed it up: "It’s a real read-it-and-weep moment."

The selection of a downstate Illinois Republican with close ties to highway lobby stalwart Caterpillar Inc. is being taken by many as a clear sign that progressive transportation policy is, for now, nowhere near the top of the Obama’s agenda.

"Obama still hasn’t made the transportation – land use – climate connection," Petra Todorovich, director of Regional Plan Association’s America 2050 program said. "It’s clear he’s thinking about these things in separate categories." For Todorovich and other advocates, the LaHood pick was the second shoe to drop this week. The first piece of bad news arrived on Monday when Obama trotted out his "green dream team," his appointments to key environmental, energy and climate posts, and the transportation secretary was nowhere to be found.

As President George W. Bush did before him, Obama has chosen to use the transportation secretary slot as a place to show bipartisanship. "This sends the message that the transportation secretary is a throw-away political appointment who doesn’t matter,’ said a city transportation official who, like others, asked to remain anonymous to preserve their relationship with the U.S. DOT. "This is the slot for the token Republican. It’s the bottom of the barrel. A bone you can throw."

Progressive transportation policy advocates are also concerned that LaHood will have trouble drawing good people to the agency. "In terms of attracting talent, no one I know is going to want to work for this guy," said a former Federal Transit Administration official. "He’s got a horrible environmental record, he’s bad on climate change and he’s Caterpillar’s bag man. Can we get a worse appointment?" Many feel that former F.A.A. chief Jane Garvey would have been the better choice.

For New Yorkers, the LaHood selection is reminiscent of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s choice in 2002 to retain Iris Weinshall as the city’s DOT Commissioner. Like LaHood, Weinshall had no real expertise or background in transportation policy (though, unlike LaHood, she did have actual administrative experience). Weinshall, who is married to Senator Chuck Schumer, was a political appointment and the results spoke for themselves. New York City transportation policy didn’t really start moving in a progressive direction until she left office and was replaced by someone with deep experience in transportation policy, Janette Sadik-Khan.

What does LaHood’s appointment mean for this year’s multi-hundred billion dollar transportation reauthorization? That will largely be up to Obama. "We need to radically change the way we think about transportation," said one Congressional staffer focused on raising more money for urban-oriented mass transit while reducing dependence on the gas tax. "LaHood is not a bold choice. He is not the transportation policy expert we were looking for. But if Obama empowers him to push a progressive agenda, that’s what we’ll be pushing in Congress."

Down in D.C. the advocates are still hopeful. Said one: "He’s not an ideologue and he’ll probably be taking direction from good people." Said another: This is "probably Obama’s weakest pick" but people with ties to LaHood "say he is potentially malleable." It ain’t much, but it’s something.

In a funny way, the bad news is good news for progressive transportation policy advocates. Their business will be booming in 2009.