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Former Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) was not an obvious choice to become President Barack Obamas secretary of Transportation. Transportation was never LaHoods signature issue during his 14 years in Congress though he represented an industrial and agricultural district whose businesses relied on all transportation modes to ship their goods.
But during his time in Congress, LaHood gained a reputation as an honest broker and troubleshooter who was a maverick within the Republican Conference. Equally important, he bonded with Obama and just as significantly, with Obamas White House chief of staff, former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).
Although he has been on the job for only a few weeks, LaHood sat down with Roll Call Executive Editor Morton M. Kondracke last week to discuss, in his trademark plain-spoken way, the economic stimulus package, the highway reauthorization bill and myriad other issues related to the future of the nations vast transportation network.
ROLL CALL EXECUTIVE EDITOR MORTON M. KONDRACKE: President Obama says that the stimulus package is going to contribute the largest investment increases in our nations roads, bridges, mass transit systems since the creation of the national highway system in the 1950s. How close do you come to that?
SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION RAY LAHOOD: Well, look, its an enormous amount of money. Its between $40 billion to $50 billion in a very short period of time. We have a limited number of days to implement this and a limited number of days to get the money out to the governors and the states and the mayors. ... This is one of the biggest infrastructure programs in this period of time. Ordinarily, when you think about infrastructure, you think about over five years. You know, you think about a highway bill over five years, or you think about some transit programs or helping Amtrak with some of its funding. Usually thats done over four or five years. Our goal is to get this money out the door within 120 days and get people to work this summer on building roads and bridges. Then theres an enormous amount of money for high-speed rail, which is about $8 billion ... $12 billion for transit, again in a short period of time. Whether youre going to have people making cars, building cars or just helping these transit districts with some of their funding, its a very comprehensive approach.
ROLL CALL: Is your bureaucracy capable of processing all this?
LAHOOD: Weve put all the modes together, including the budget people. ... They tell me they are going to meet every deadline set forth in the legislation by the Congress to get the money out the door, in the hands of highway administrators, transit administrators and people at Amtrak, people that run airports. Theres money for airports. The answer is yes. We are going to meet the very, very tough, strict guidelines that have been set by Congress. Our team here believes they can do it. ... There will be a Web site established at the White House. We will feed the information in how many people are working, how the money is being spent, who the money went to, no earmarks and money going out to some existing projects, some new projects, some that have been on the shelves in departments of transportation, for lack of money have not been funded, but are ready to go.
ROLL CALL: On the highway money, which I think is $27.5 billion, to what extent is that repair and maintenance and to what extent is it actual building of new bridges and highways?
LAHOOD: [On Feb. 11], we invited every highway administrator and secretary of transportation we had 43 attend the meeting at the old [Executive Office Building]. Every one of them brought examples of projects that had been sitting on shelves, been sitting waiting for funding. I would say the lions share of the $27 billion-plus for highways will be for projects that are ready to go, meet all the environmental standards. Youre not going to see much of this money being used to fill potholes. Youre going to see this money jump-starting projects, getting projects going, funding projects that have been sitting on shelves. This is not going to be pothole money. This is going to be fairly comprehensive projects.
ROLL CALL: It was $20.6 billion, I believe, for nonhighway projects. On the aviation money, are you going to do anything about NextGen, the new traffic control system, or does that wait until reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration?
LAHOOD: It waits a little bit longer because, frankly, theres not that much money in there. Theres a little over $1 billion for aviation, and some of that money will be used for runways, some will be used for airport facilities, none of it will be used for NextGen.
ROLL CALL: NextGen is a satellite air traffic control system.
LAHOOD: Everything that I have said, whether it was my testimony before the Senate [Commerce, Science and Transportation] Committee, whether it was before a town meeting here, or a town meeting with the FAA, our No. 1 priority with the FAA is finding the best administrator we can and getting the NextGen and getting the dispute between [the National Air Traffic Controllers Association] and the administration behind us off the table. Theyve had a running dispute with the previous administration over their contract. The administration implemented a contract that was not agreed to by the NATCA, and theres a huge dispute. The controllers are not happy. Theyre not happy people. We want people in these control towers that feel like theyre being well-compensated for the work that they do, which is very important work. But the NextGen is one of our top priorities here, and were going to get to it. Our idea is that we set a big-picture parameter so that we know that in 2020 or 2018, itll be complete, but we have a more short-term goal of five to eight years. Everybody knows whats the equipment we need, wheres it going to go.
ROLL CALL: The [Congressional Budget Office] estimate says that of the highway money, only about $9.6 billion out of the $27.5 billion will pay out in the first two years, and only $4.7 billion of the $20.6 billion in the other category will pay out, or net total about 30 percent of the money in the first two years. So is that really stimulus or is it long term? Or is it both?
LAHOOD: We dont agree with that [figure]. The folks around here have told me this morning in a meeting, Well have the money out the door within 120 days. We have other requirements that it has to be spent within a year or two years depending on the different programs.
ROLL CALL: What is your estimate of the amount of the percentage of this total transportation money that actually will be on the street, or fixing the streets, in the next two years? Do you have one?
LAHOOD: I believe well have the money out the door. I believe we will have the $27 billion-plus, according to the guidelines set by Congress. The idea that its not going to be out the door and its not going to be funding projects, we dont agree with that. Our professional people here believe they can meet the standards that have been set by Congress in the legislation, have the money out the door to the states in 120 days and then have it spent some of its one year, some of its two years and well meet those requirements, and then we will spend the money and people will be working.
ROLL CALL: The $8 billion thats in there for high-speed rail how much of that is [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reids [D-Nev.] Maglev, going from Las Vegas to Disneyland?
LAHOOD: This is money that was put in by the president. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, did the negotiations on this bill. This is money that was put in by the president because he wants to make high-speed rail his transportation legacy, and they intend to do that. Now, they have asked us to come back to them with a listing of high-speed rail projects that are ready to go, that could be funded that the president could begin to be announcing. ... This is one of the highest transportation priorities for President Obama. We will give them a listing of four or five high-speed rail projects that can be implemented and are ready to go.
ROLL CALL: What is the status of this Maglev? Was that just one idea?
LAHOOD: Its an idea.
ROLL CALL: So the stimulus bill does not order you to do that?
LAHOOD: Absolutely not.
ROLL CALL: In spite of environmental delays and all of this, there really is stuff thats shovel-ready?
LAHOOD: If you were to interview any of the 43 secretaries of transportation or highway administrators who were in Washington ... I asked them to bring one or two examples, and we went around the room and every one of them had a list of projects that are ready to go that meet all of the environmental standards, no shortcuts.
ROLL CALL: Sign-offs all done and everything?
LAHOOD: Absolutely, absolutely. Mainly because there was such a delay in the last highway bill, and you know, there frankly wasnt enough money because President [George W.] Bush decided he was going to go for a much lower figure, and the states have not had the money for the match on some of these projects. There is no match required in these. This money goes out the door. There is no match, and they will start working.
ROLL CALL: Will you be able to track the efficiency of their spending? In other words, will you be able to catch a project that is going over budget?
LAHOOD: Absolutely. Well have a matrix for all of these projects, and it will be posted on the White House Web site, which will be done by [Office of Management and Budget]. But well feed OMB on a regular basis their information where the money went, who got it, how many people went to work, is the money being spent on time, more transparency. Any taxpayer can click into this and get the full realm of whats going on in their state and what projects are being funded and how many people are working and if things are on time.
ROLL CALL: How much more expensive are all these projects going to be because of the Buy America provisions in the bill?
LAHOOD: You know, were trying to do a little research on that. The Buy America provision is different in the final bill than it was when it was first discussed, and were really trying to analyze and figure that out. Were going to follow the law, but we dont know how strong the actual Buy America is. Were trying to evaluate with OMB what it really means. OMB has to weigh in on this also.
ROLL CALL: The Davis-Bacon requirements: Doesnt that mean that fewer people will actually be hired, but the people who do get hired will be paid wages that in some cases exceed the going rate in their communities?
LAHOOD: Davis-Bacon is part of the federal law. Its part of the federal requirements for these projects. Ive heard the arguments as a Member of Congress, Ive heard the arguments on the other side of Davis-Bacon, but its part of the law, and it enables people really to get a wage thats commensurate with the kind of work that theyre doing. These are very skilled people that are going to be building roads and bridges, and Davis-Bacon provides an opportunity for them to be compensated in a way that reflects the kind of professionalism they bring to the job.
ROLL CALL: Davis-Bacon requires that federal projects pay union wages, union scale.
LAHOOD: Thats correct. They pay the standard that, you know, is the prevailing standard for that particular area.
ROLL CALL: Lets go to the longer-run plan. Will this administration have an infrastructure plan, a national infrastructure plan?
LAHOOD: Absolutely. As soon as we begin the implementation, Ive already met with [Minnesota Democratic Rep.] Jim Oberstar, the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House, about the reauthorization, about a new highway bill. He and I have had discussions. He had me up there last week. I met with all of his subcommittee chairs and ranking members. Hes pushing very hard to get a bill out the door of the House of Representatives by the end of the fiscal year.
ROLL CALL: How much?
LAHOOD: That I dont know, we didnt really discuss figures. But itll be very ambitious. Jim is a big infrastructure guy. He believes in it, and his committee believes that its a good way to keep people working. The reauthorization will be a very good follow-on to the stimulus. It will keep people working well beyond the time frames that are in the stimulus bill, which in some instances are one year, in some instances are two years, so its a very good follow-on. I dont think youre going to see any opportunity for a void here if Jim Oberstar has anything to say about it. He wants a very good follow-on to the stimulus and no better way to do it than through the highway reauthorization.
ROLL CALL: The American Society of Civil Engineers says that we need to spend $930 billion on roads and bridges, and $265 billion in mass transit. Thats $1.2 trillion. Youre not anticipating spending that kind of money, are you?
LAHOOD: ... Theres a lot of figures floating around. Were going to jump-start the economy, we believe, with the stimulus bill and follow on with the reauthorization. I cant be specific because I dont know at this point what the final figure will be. But we know it costs a lot of money to build roads and bridges, and so its not going to be inexpensive.
ROLL CALL: The Highway Trust Fund is right now $8 billion short and is supposed to be $79 billion short by 2015. With lower uses of gasoline, therefore less gasoline tax revenue, how are you going to make up these?
LAHOOD: One of the things I said during my [confirmation] hearing, and one of the things I said with every Senator that I met with, was that the Highway Trust Fund is a 20th-century funding mechanism for funding highways. Every Senator I talked to had a little different idea about what we should be doing. Were not going to eliminate the Highway Trust Fund because were going to collect gasoline taxes. But it nowhere comes near meeting the needs that this country has for infrastructure, and what I have said to Senators and to House Members is that we need to think outside the box. If youre building a road, what about the idea of tolling as a mechanism to pay for it? If youre building a bridge, why not think about the idea of tolling? Sen. [John] Thune [R-S.D.] and Sen. [Ron] Wyden [D-Ore.] have a bill about selling bonds and using the bonding power in order to build roads. You have a proposal out there about measuring the number of miles that you travel and then using that as a mechanism to fund roads. What Im saying is, we need to think outside the box about how were going to fund roads and bridges and infrastructure, in addition to the Highway Trust Fund because its just an antiquated system of doing it. Some people are proposing raising the gas tax, and in these hard economic times, its going to be difficult for this administration to be proposing an increase in the gas tax. Im not ruling it out, but Im just saying we need to think outside the box, other than just highway trust funds.
ROLL CALL: What about the idea of the National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank? That was talked about during the campaign, $60 billion. How does that work?
LAHOOD: You know, its controversial, but it is a way to think outside the box of a different funding mechanism, and weve had some Senators say they like it, and weve had other Senators say they dont like it. Weve had some say they like the bonding. I think it all has to be part of the debate that goes on.
ROLL CALL: Does this all come up in the context of the Surface Transportation Act?
LAHOOD: Absolutely. Its all a part of the debate in the House and the Senate about, you know, everybodys got their projects, everybodys got their infrastructure needs. Now how do we pay for it? It may end up ... because its a combination of these things of bonding, of tolling, of the infrastructure bank, of the Highway Trust Fund and the combination of all of it provides us with the kinds of resources we need to do the things that are necessary.
ROLL CALL: Do you envision that in that bill that you will begin to be working on intelligent transportation systems like smart lanes, where people would be able to pay a high-occupancy toll if they want to get to work faster, then they have a computerized, like an E-Z pass, for that lane?
LAHOOD: Absolutely. That has to be part of the debate. Thats been tried in some states, and in some states, its been very successful. I know they have it in Illinois, they have it across the river here in Virginia, so I think we have to look at that as one of the options for the way to do these things.
ROLL CALL: When are we going to ever get smart traffic systems in cities? Theres sensors that tell you if you dont have to stop at a light, or they track traffic and stuff like that. Is that 22nd century or is that soon?
LAHOOD: Well, I dont know if that goes along with the congestion program that was tried to be implemented in Chicago. Its being thought about for communities like New York and Chicago, and being talked about, but really no finality to it at this point. ... One of the things Im going to stress is the livable communities program and try and make that a part of the reauthorization, where you really try and build in this bill an opportunity for communities that can think about other things than just automobiles and can think about other modes for transportation and sort of developing whether its transit or whether its bicycles or whether its walking and really try to build a livable community into this bill as a real program, and perhaps as a title in the bill. That idea I think is sort of the 21st-century thinking: that we cant just think about the old ways of doing things now, we have to think about new ways of doing it and that people want to live in communities that are greener, that are cleaner.
ROLL CALL: Do you envision a slowdown in the development of exurbia, and are you going to try to actually ... dampen [sprawl] down in some way?
LAHOOD: I think were going to try and talk in this bill about the idea that people want to live in communities where they can get around, where they have access to the things that they need to do and they dont always have to get in their automobile to do it.
ROLL CALL: What is the future of freight rail? You know, you see these commercials that say that compared to trucks, this is really the way to save energy, efficiency and that sort of thing.
LAHOOD: Well, theres a big debate about freight and the fact that theres a lot of shared trackage. But freight is something that certainly the freight industry is promoting, and it is a way to get trucks off the road. The problem is the track thats really available to move the kind of freight that people want to do. With the advent of more port access and more availability of freight trains from the ports ... there are some concepts on paper for some freight opportunities, particularly out of these ports in the northwest part of the country, in the southern part of the country Mississippi, that area; of course, Washington and so forth and along the California coast. Theres some good concepts out there about moving our port imports along freight lines. Some of it would involve some additional freight lines.
ROLL CALL: You seem to be more inclined to do high-speed passenger rail than freight rail.
LAHOOD: Well look, I go back to what I said before. I have been told, by the chief of staff at the White House, high-speed rail is a very high priority for this president. His priorities will be my priorities.
ROLL CALL: Back to the FAA reauthorization. The problem has been that its taken forever usually to get these bills through and then they dont get through. Is this thing ready to go now, the FAA reauthorization, do you think?
LAHOOD: Well, the House passed a bill last year pretty easily, and I know that [House Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation Chairman] Jerry Costello [D-Ill.] is ready, positioned to do it rather quickly this year. It languished in the Senate, and I think, you could ask [Senate Commerce] Chairman [Jay] Rockefeller [D-W.Va.], but I think, because of funding issues, it did not pass, but Im told by Chairman Rockefeller that he really wants to get an FAA bill out. I believe hes committed to doing that. I believe the bill that passed last year, in terms of NextGen, in terms of really taking the FAA to the next level, in terms of technology and so forth, youre going to see a pretty similar bill come out of the House pretty quickly. I think Chairman Rockefeller is committed to doing it in the Senate also.
ROLL CALL: How does the transportation philosophy of this administration differ from the Bush administration?
LAHOOD: Look, as I said, this administrations No. 1 transportation priority is obviously the stimulus, No. 2, high-speed rail, which theyve put an enormous amount of money into, $8 billion. ... It was less than $1 billion a year. This is enormous. I mean, people all over the country are just elated that the president is putting his money where his pledges, or his promises, were.
ROLL CALL: So high-speed rail and just bigger funding?
LAHOOD: No, I think high-speed rail, and I also think really putting resources into infrastructure in the country, thinking outside the box on how we fund it. NextGen is a big priority as it relates to FAA, and I also think having a relationship to the controllers, who are a very important component in our transportation system, particularly our flying public feeling safe, and that these guys are well-trained and well-experienced in their ability to direct planes in and out of these airports, particularly on the Northeast Corridor, out on the West Coast and so forth.
ROLL CALL: Last question. How does the need to invest in infrastructure square with the presidents promise that he is going to bring down the long-term debt and deficits of the country? Youre going to make all of these huge investments and yet he also wants the next budget to have a downward spiral. After we spend all this money and get ourselves deeper into debt, hes going to get it under control. So how do you square those things? Does transportation have to square it or is it all entitlements?
LAHOOD: Well, look, part of it is, I obviously just came from Congress and when you look at the pile of debt that was piled on, almost all of it was from declared emergencies to fund the war. It wasnt for infrastructure. It wasnt for investments in the country. It was to pay for what we were doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to build up our military. And I think youre going to see a different approach and different priorities. Im not saying all of that money is going to go in for infrastructure. Infrastructure has a priority with this administration. Its reflected in the stimulus; its reflected in their priorities in the stimulus, i.e., high-speed rail and fixing up roads and bridges. I just think that when you look at the budget that will be presented to Congress next week, were not in for a huge increase, but theres a commitment by this administration to work with Congress on getting a reauthorization of highway, a reauthorization of FAA, implementing Amtrak so that Amtrak has the resources ... I think that one of the legacies of this administration is very strong transportation, multimobile and putting some of the resources into it.