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Obama's Transportation Nominee LaHood Largely A Blank Slate on Key Issues
Ray LaHood will look after highway infrastructure improvements, fuel-economy efforts, vehicle safety, spending on mass transit and clean car programs, even the national speed limit as President-elect Barack Obama's Transportation secretary, but the just-retired Illinois congressman is largely a cipher on those issues.
LaHood, 63 (left), has little transportation record beyond his support for Amtrak, the national passenger train program, and his apparently friendly relationship with the Teamsters Union and other transportation unions, which endorsed and financially supported him during his congressional career. The national Teamseters Union also has endorsed his nomination as Transportation Secretary.
Some pundits have suggested that his value is more as the Obama cabinet's lone registered Republican (retiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates considers himself a Republican but is registered as an independent) than as a transportation wiz.
"We should ask 'what's under LaHood?' " quiped David Doniger, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But for what he has done on transportation issues, the former congressman from Peoria generally wins plaudits.
"While his environmental record is mixed, LaHood has proven himself as an ally of public transportation, consistently voting to support mass transit and intercity rail, systems which need vast investment to move America to the greener, cleaner infrastructure proposed by President-elect Barack Obama," said Rob McCulloch, transportation issues advocate for Environment America.
LaHood also has a record of supporting federal fuel economy increases, votiong for corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) hikes in 1993, 1995 and 2007, said Ann Mesnikoff, the Sierra Club's Washington, D.C., representative. "That at least means he understands the policy and the need to raise standards," she said.
LaHood, who built a friendship with fellow prairie stater Obama despite their political differences, does seem to be valued by the incoming president for his prowess at building bridges - but bridges between Democrats and Republicans, not the kind that carry traffic over rivers and canyons.
LaHood is best known as a consensus builder who has helped bring congressional Democrats and Republicans to the bargaining table on a number of issues.
That will be a critical role in moving spending bills through congress for Obama's huge infrastructure-based jobs program for jump starting the economy.
His consensus-building prowess could be strained, though, in an administration rapidly filing up with former Bill Clinton-era Democrats: La Hood will stand out as the congressman who presided over Clinton's impeachment.
But he's considered very much a moderate and was one of just three GOP representatives who refused to sign then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," which turned the party sharply to the right.
Part of his job will include overseeing the auto industry as it struggles to comply with the federally mandated task of achieving an average fuel economy of 35 miles per gallon for new cars and trucks by 2020.
Achieving that goal is one of the conditions of the $17.4-billion federal auto industry bailout plan authorized today by the White House but opposed by many Republicans in the Senate. Easing tensions over the plan is likely to be one of LaHood's jobs.
Additionally, Obama has said one of his priorities is to put one million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015 and has called for major highway infrastructure improvements and for vastly increased use of biofuels.
As head of DOT, LaHood will be critical in carrying the new president's transportation spending plans to Congress and, presumably, helping to decide what kinds of projects get funded.
Biofuels are not directly a DOT concern, but mesh with the department's new task of shepherding the auto industry into a future of clean, efficient vehicles that co-exist with an expanded public transit system - all aimed at reducing the nation's voracious appetite for oil.
"Our hope is that as he helps move what has historically been a road-building agency to reorient itself to help push for oil independence, that he will help the administration push policies that are critical to reducing CO2," said John DeCiccio, senior fellow for auotmotive strategies at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Carbon dioxide, one of the leading greenhouse gases understood to be major contributors to global warming, are a direct product of petroleum consumption. In the automotive world, that means that improved fuel economy equates to reduced CO2.
If approved by a Democrat-controlled Congress that's likely to give the new president whatever he asks for in the first months of the new administration, LaHood will head a mutli-faceted department that faces a number of huge challenges.
Agencies under the DOT umbrella include the federal Aviation, Highway and Transit administrations and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
The highway administration hands out funding for federal and state road building projects and the transit administration allocates funds for rail and bus projects, including programs to test alternative fuel buses that use hybrid and electric propulsion systems.
NHTSA, in addition to overseeing and helping regulate automotive safety standards - a major component in the costs of cars and trucks today - also formulates the rules automakers must follow to achieve federal fuel efficiency goals, the so-called corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standard.
As part of its role in setting fuel-efficiency standards, DOT also will have a big say in setting highway speed limits if proponents of a new effort to cut top speeds back to 50 or 55 mphgainany traction with Congress.
LaHood's appointment appears to signal that Obama's most immediate concern is for a jobs-creating infrastructure building program that will rely largely on highway and public transit improvements and will demand huge spending levels that need the support of Republicans in Congress.
LaHood "doesn't have the background, but the expectation is that he'll be there ot help the administration carry out its agenda by taking its message to the Republicans and gaining their support," said DeCiccio.
"Our transportation policies and investment are critical," he said. "They are very long-lived, and have a lot to say about how how much we use cars versus trains, planes and buses.